The deadly fungal infection known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) has killed at least a million bats since it was first observed in 2006. In some areas more than 90 percent of the bats have been wiped out. Scientists have been behind the eight ball in their efforts to protect bats from this mysterious and devastating threat, which disrupts the mammals' ability to regulate their body temperature during hibernation—but now we have two good bits of news to share.

First off, the cause of WNS has at last been conclusively determined: a fungus called Geomyces destructans. The fungus was already the primary suspect for WNS, but a study published last week in Nature makes the link conclusively.

Anne Kinsinger, associate director of Ecosystems for the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a prepared statement that linking G. destructans to WNS will help scientists and conservation groups protect bats as we enter the winter months when the fungus is more active: "By identifying what causes WNS, this study will greatly enhance the ability of decision-makers to develop management strategies to preserve vulnerable bat populations and the ecosystem services that they provide in the U.S. and Canada."

One management strategy is already in the planning stages in Tennessee, where WNS hasn't quite gained a foothold yet but has already made its presence known. Because WNS is too hard to wipe out in natural ecosystems, conservation groups are trying to move bats out of their normal caves to a more sterile environment. They're doing this by building an artificial cave.

The pilot project—being planned now by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with the University of Tennessee Knoxville and Bat Conservation International—will involve building an artificial cave with walls that mimic natural limestone but which can be easily disinfected with antifungal agents. They'll build it next an existing bat cave and hope the bats will switch homes. "The fungus is really susceptible to a lot of things, such as heat and antifungal agents," Corey Holliday, Cave and Karst Program director for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, told, "but you can't do what needs to be done in a natural cave setting because it would destroy other cave life forms, as well," Holliday says. "This artificial cave is a pilot project, but if it works, we are hopeful that we can build a lot of these things."

The groups hope to break ground on the faux cave next year. They have raised one third of the project's projected $300,000 price tag.

It's too early to tell if this project will be a success, but with our nation's bats at stake, it's a good idea that deserves attention.

Photo: Image: Bats exhibiting signs of white-nose syndrome. Photo by Al Hicks; New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service