Bloodsucking pests like bat fleas and bat flies may not sound very appealing to the rest of us, but to University at Buffalo biologist Katharina Dittmar de la Cruz, Ph.D., they are among the most successful creatures evolution has ever produced.
"From an historical perspective, they have been around forever, they don't die out," said Dittmar, assistant professor of biological sciences in UB's College of Arts and Sciences. "How they have been able to occupy a small ecological niche by adapting to their specific hosts, proliferating and surviving for millions of years is the focus of my research."
By providing a clearer picture of how these potential disease vectors adapt to bats, her research may shed light on White Nose Syndrome, which has killed tens of thousands of bats in the northeastern U.S. and which some feel may parallel the Colony Collapse Disorder that has devastated honey bee colonies in recent years.
During the week of June 23, Dittmar and her UB student lab assistant will be taking to rural rooftops in Western New York and nearby Canada at sunset, briefly trapping bats to record data and learn more about the parasites that feast on bats.
"We don't know yet if bat flies are vectors of disease, but it's very likely," she said. "Every other parasitic organism transmits pathogens. Bat flies are adapted to bats and only bats. They're ectoparasites, meaning they are blood-sucking creatures, living in the fur of bats, so they are like little vampires. The bats cannot get rid of them because they interlock with individual hairs on the bat's fur."
She noted that bat flies pose no threat to humans.
Dittmar is the world's only researcher working to genetically characterize bat flies, so it's a field that she says is wide open for discovery.
To obtain genetic data, she takes samples of the DNA of bat flies and compares them against Genbank, a huge database containing the genes of thousands of species.
The genetic information provides insight into which bacteria and viruses may be transmitted among bat flies and to bats by parasites. "If we find that these bacteria or viruses are highly prevalent in bat populations, then we will want to do infection studies," she said.
If it turns out that a known pathogen is causing White Nose Syndrome, then they will be able to take a comprehensive genomics approach to the issue.
What complicates the work is that researchers know very little about bats in general, she said.
"As researchers, we sit in meetings where we discuss what might be killing the bats and we acknowledge that we don't know enough about many aspects of their lives," she said. "It's interesting that we are only starting to do comprehensive research on bats now that disease has struck."
She added that it's similar to what happened with the massive deaths that have struck honey bee colonies in recent years, the exact cause of which still remains a mystery.
Dittmar stressed that there is no proven connection between White Nose Syndrome in bats and Colony Collapse Disorder in bees.
"Still, it's interesting to see two diseases that massively affect invertebrates and vertebrates and they're happening around the same time," she said, adding that many people have asked her about a possible connection.
Both diseases underscore the importance of basic scientific research, she said.
"Here are two examples where you need all this information, but until now, no one saw any apparent benefit to doing the research," she said. "It's especially relevant with parasites because we have hundreds of examples where they are vectors of diseases, but we have no idea with what frequency parasites occur on bats, potentially carrying pathogens from bat to bat. We need to do basic research and should always remember that many great discoveries were made purely by serendipity."
Dittmar is currently funded by the National Science Foundation and she collaborates with the Field Museum in Chicago, where she is a research associate in zoology. She conducts field research on bat flies and bat fleas all over the world, throughout North and South America, Europe and Asia.
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