Finding the Pattern

The next time you venture into a cave in the United States, think about Dr. Carol Meteyer and what she discovered.

Anyone entering a cave in the United States is required to complete a simple screening process to help prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome (WNS) among bats. WNS affects hibernating bats and is caused by a fungus that looks like a white fuzz on bats’ faces.

Since 2006, bats have been dying in unprecedented numbers in the United States from WNS. While humans aren’t susceptible, they can potentially spread the fungus between caves, mines and other sites where bats roost.

The next time you venture into a cave in the United States, think about Dr. Carol Meteyer and what she discovered.

Anyone entering a cave in the United States is required to complete a simple screening process to help prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome (WNS) among bats. WNS affects hibernating bats and is caused by a fungus that looks like a white fuzz on bats’ faces.

Since 2006, bats have been dying in unprecedented numbers in the United States from WNS. While humans aren’t susceptible, they can potentially spread the fungus between caves, mines and other sites where bats roost.

So what does this have to do with Carol Meteyer, a 1983 DVM graduate of Iowa State?

She discovered WNS was caused by a skin fungus that erodes through the wings of bats as their immune system slows during hibernation. Meteyer made the discovery while working as a forensics pathologist at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

“We didn’t know what was killing bats in 2007-08,” Meteyer recalled. “In all the years prior to this, I had maybe seen a dozen bats total.

“Then within three months I had looked at over 200 bats.”

The increased activity in examining bats got Meteyer thinking and working to find a connection between the white fungus on the muzzle of bats and the case of death. She still remembers the moment she first spotted the lesion on a bat specimen.

“My palms got sweaty, I was holding my breath,” she said. “It was an invasive fungus that occurred only in hibernating bats. But there was no inflammation so our next logical step was to look at what hibernation does to bats.”

Meteyer was flying blind in her quest. No previous work had been completed on the subject so they went to ground squirrels as a model hibernator. Meteyer and her colleagues went a step further saying the bat seemed to be the perfect host and caves provided the perfect temperature for the fungus to thrive.

White-nose syndrome isn’t the only significant wildlife disease that Meteyer has helped bring to the world’s attention. Pakistan had seen a 99 percent population decline in oriental white-backed vultures over a 10-year span when Meteyer first became aware of the problem.

Meteyer discovered the vultures were dying from renal failure after scavenging dead cattle. Upon further research, Meteyer and her colleagues discovered vultures died within 36 hours of consuming cattle that had been treated with diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

Thanks to Meteyer’s work, Pakistan, India and Nepal have banned the drug and the vulture populations in the Indian sub-continent are coming back from near extinction.

“As a pathologist, I’m a pattern person,” Meteyer said. “I can lesions I have seen a decade earlier and it can help me connect the dots in new cases.”

Meteyer career after graduating from Iowa State has definitely not followed a straight pattern. Even her entry into vet school wasn’t the typical route.

The Chicago native taught high school science in Cedar Rapids for a few years before entering Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Then after graduation, she moved to Los Angeles where she did a residency in pathology, performing a little emergency work before board certification in pathology and working for five years as a pathologist for the University of California-Davis diagnostic system.

When a position came available as a forensics pathologist at the National Wildlife Heath Center, Meteyer’s career pattern took another detour serving as a wildlife pathologist for the next two decades.

It was here where Meteyer worked on white-nose syndrome, the Pakistan oriental white-backed vultures as well as conducting necropsies on boxes and boxes of crows with West Nile Virus. Patterns emerged in each of these cases.

“When you detect a process of disease spread you are already behind the curve,” Meteyer said, “and the cause of many of these cases were somehow related to human behavior. As in Pakistan and diclofenac, it took changes in policy to change human behavior and save wildlife.”

And where’s the place individuals can make changes in policy? Washington, D.C. of course. She left Madison to work as a science advisor at the U.S. Geological Survey’s headquarters in Environmental Health.

“I decided to go to Washington to try to make a difference at a higher level,” Meteyer said. “We were looking at policies that would affect the spread of wildlife species and how the ecosystem we share drives the diagnosis.

“The loss of a single wildlife species can affect so much.”

Take for instance the Pakistan vultures. At normal population, a carcass of a single cow would be consumed within 24 hours.

“That didn’t happen after the vulture population decreased due to the drugs being used in the cows,” Meteyer said. “It soon became a public health issue.”

Now retired, Meteyer says while her veterinary passions have evolved over her career, she was always motivated by the intellectual challenges. She was recently in Nepal to help determine the cause for increased rhino mortality. While she was there, she was able to visit a vulture recovery center and see the Oriental white-back vultures as they were provided safe, drug-free carcasses for consumption.

“I always followed my opportunities even if the opportunity didn’t seem to be my passion at the moment,” she said. “As long as it was intellectually stimulating that was what drove me.

“When I was small animal veterinarian in Los Angles, I never guessing I would be working with vultures and rhinos 25 years later.”