From the Missouri Department of Conservation
-- The Missouri Department of Conservation has recently confirmed Missouri’s first signs of White-Nose Syndrome, a new disease in bats. The name describes a white fungus, Geomyces destructans, typically found on the faces and wings of infected bats.
“The WNS fungus appears to spread mainly through bat-to-bat contact and has not been found to infect humans or other animals,” explained MDC Cave Biologist Bill Elliott. “It thrives in the cool, damp conditions found in many caves which are also ideal hibernation and roosting sites for many bat species.”
He said the scientific community is still learning about WNS, which was first discovered in a cave in New York state in 2006. Elliott and other MDC scientists have been tracking the westward progression of the disease since its discovery. Laboratory tests recently confirmed the presence of the WNS fungus on a bat found in a cave in Pike County.
The disease causes infected bats to awaken more often during their winter hibernation and fly outside in search of insects to eat. This activity uses up stored fat reserves needed to get them through the winter, and they usually freeze or starve to death.
According to Bat Conservation International, a leading authority on bat conservation, education and research, WNS has killed more than a million bats in 11 states and Canada.
Elliott noted that the MDC has a WNS action plan in place that focuses on MDC lands. The Department is working with other state and federal agencies, conservation groups and private cave owners, including owners of Missouri show caves, to develop a Missouri-wide WNS action plan to address the threat of WNS to the state’s valuable bat populations.
“There are more than 6,300 caves in Missouri with 74 percent of them privately owned,” Elliott said. “More than 500 are known to house bat colonies, but that number may be as high as 5,000.”
He added that the state’s numerous show caves are great places for people to discover nature by learning about the value of bats and the unique ecosystems of cave environments.
“Missouri is home to at least 12 species of bats,” Elliott explained. “They are our front line defense against many insect pests including some moths, certain beetles and mosquitoes. Insect pests can cause extensive forest and agricultural damage. Missouri’s 775,000 gray bats alone eat more than 223 billion bugs a year, or about 540 tons.”
BCI information states that the more than one million bats killed by WNS would have consumed just under 700,000 tons of insects each year. That equals the weight of about 175,000 elephants.
Elliott added that bats are long-lived but slow-reproducing animals with most species having an average lifespan of about 15 years and giving birth usually to only one pup each year.
“They also play a vital role in cave ecosystems, providing nutrients for other cave life through their droppings, or guano, and are food for other animals such as snakes and owls,” he said.
“Disturbing bats in caves while they roost or hibernate could increase their stress and weaken their health.”
As a longstanding policy to help protect bats and the fragile and unique ecosystems found in caves, MDC restricts access to many of its caves. Access to MDC caves is permitted only if there is a CAVE OPEN sign posted at the entrance, or if a person has a special MDC permit for research, recreation or education purposes.
Elliott cautioned that people should not handle any bats, and contact MDC if they find dead bats with white, fuzzy fungal growth. For more information, visit MissouriConservation.org and search White Nose Syndrome.