Host and pathogen ecology drive the seasonal dynamics of a fungal disease, white-nose syndrome
Seasonal patterns in pathogen transmission can influence the impact of disease on populations and the speed of spatial spread. Increases in host contact rates or births drive seasonal epidemics in some systems, but other factors may occasionally override these influences. White-nose syndrome, caused by the emerging fungal pathogen Pseudogymnoascus destructans, is spreading across North America and threatens several bat species with extinction. We examined patterns and drivers of seasonal transmission of P. destructans by measuring infection prevalence and pathogen loads in six bat species at 30 sites across the eastern United States. Bats became transiently infected in autumn, and transmission spiked in early winter when bats began hibernating. Nearly all bats in six species became infected by late winter when infection intensity peaked. In summer, despite high contact rates and a birth pulse, most bats cleared infections and prevalence dropped to zero. These data suggest the dominant driver of seasonal transmission dynamics was a change in host physiology, specifically hibernation. Our study is the first, to the best of our knowledge, to describe the seasonality of transmission in this emerging wildlife disease. The timing of infection and fungal growth resulted in maximal population impacts, but moderate rates of spatial spread.