Looking out for Deadly Disease Outbreaks

Biologists are conducting a three and a half-year project to monitor Florida’s bats and amphibians for signs of deadly disease outbreaks or the pathogens that cause them.
scientist holding a bat, caption below
An FWRI scientist examines a bat.

For species with already diminishing numbers, a disease outbreak could lead to extinction. Globally, emerging pathogens such as fungi, viruses and parasites have taken a toll on amphibian species in the last decade. White nose syndrome has wiped out more than a million insect-eating bats across several northeastern states and parts of Canada since its discovery in New York in 2006, and the fungal disease has rapidly moved south and west. Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) scientists are alert to these dangers, especially as they affect animals that the FWC identifies as Species of Greatest Conservation Need.

In July 2010, supported by a State Wildlife Grant, FWRI personnel with the Ecosystem Assessment and Restoration and Wildlife Research sections, along with FWC Habitat and Species Conservation biologists and other partners, began a three-and-a-half-year project to monitor Florida’s bats and amphibians for signs of deadly disease outbreaks or the pathogens that cause them. From late winter to early summer, researchers survey amphibian habitats and catch specimens to swab for samples. In the laboratory, scientists test the swabs and other tissue samples for signs of pathogens or disease. From late fall to winter, project scientists observe bats for signs of white nose syndrome, which has not yet been documented in Florida. Researchers also respond year-round to reports of significant die-offs of bat and amphibian species. They examine the dead animals to determine whether disease was a factor.

So far, biologists have responded to a die-off of American bullfrogs, southern leopard frogs, and gopher frogs, a Species of Greatest Conservation Need. Researchers determined that a combination of a disease-causing parasite and ranavirus likely killed the frogs. Ranavirus has been responsible for massive amphibian die-offs throughout the United States; though this marked the first documented report in Florida.

For the remainder of the project, researchers are expanding amphibian disease surveys and coordinating efforts to monitor for bat die-offs and disease outbreaks. To better monitor future bat die-offs, project scientists have developed a method for the public to report these occurrences through the FWC website, much like other agency reporting mechanisms that already exist for birds and fish. Researchers are also setting up a system to coordinate response to such reports and to coordinate the diagnosis of potential bat diseases.

The diagnosis and die-off response methods developed in this project will lay the groundwork for responders handling future disease outbreaks. The project’s findings will help the FWC assess disease or die-off risks to vulnerable bat and amphibian populations in Florida and build that information into management plans with a goal of lessening the impact of these environmental factors. The findings will also be useful to amphibian and bat managers in other locales as disease-related threats to these animals continue.

Partners in this study are the Central Florida Zoological Park and Gardens, the Florida Museum of Natural History, the University of Florida, the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, and the Albuquerque New Mexico Biopark.

FWC Facts:
The FWC’s Angler Tag Return Hotline, 800-367-4461, collects data regarding tagged fish that anglers have captured or sighted in Florida waters.

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