Disease can play an important role in structuring species communities because the effects of disease vary among hosts; some species are driven towards extinction, while others suffer relatively little impact. Why disease impacts vary among host species remains poorly understood for most multi-host pathogens, and factors allowing less susceptible species to persist could be useful in conserving highly affected species. White-nose syndrome (WNS), an emerging fungal disease in bats, has decimated some species while sympatric and closely related species have experienced little effect. We analysed data on infection prevalence, fungal loads and environmental factors to determine how variation in infection among sympatric host species influenced the severity of WNS population impacts. Intense transmission resulted in almost uniformly high prevalence in all species. By contrast, fungal loads varied over 3 orders of magnitude among species, and explained 98% of the variation among species in disease impacts. Fungal loads increased with hibernating roosting temperatures, with bats roosting at warmer temperatures having more higher fungal loads and higher WNS impacts. We also found evidence of a threshold fungal load, above which the probability of mortality may increase sharply, and this threshold was similar for multiple species. This study demonstrates how differences in behavioural traits among species—in this case microclimate preferences—that may have been previously adaptive, can be deleterious after the introduction of a new pathogen. Management to reduce pathogen loads rather than exposure may be an effective way of reducing disease impact and preventing species extinctions.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Tackling emerging fungal threats to animal health, food security and ecosystem resilience’.