A New Threat to Bats: White-Nose Syndrome

Perhaps you have heard of White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), a new disease of bats caused by an infectious fungus, Geomyces destructans. Maybe you saw the TV documentaries showing a carpet of dead bats in a Vermont cave. WNS, a disease that attacks the skin of cave-hibernating bats (but not humans or other wildlife), was discovered in New York State in 2006, and it spread from there. Like many invasive species and wildlife diseases, this fungus probably was accidentally introduced, in this case probably from Europe, where it infects bats without killing them. WNS rapidly spread throughout the northeastern U.S., down the Appalachians, and into Canada, and it has killed at least 1 million bats of six species. In some cases, 75-100 percent of the populations have died.

Missourians value bats and other wildlife. Your Conservation Department has been on the lookout for WNS since 2009 because six of the nine species vulnerable to WNS occur in Missouri caves and abandoned underground mines. With more than 6,500 known caves and millions of bats in caves, forests, cities and farms, Missouri could lose a lot of nature’s free benefits.

Protecting Missouri Bats

WNS moved from West Virginia through Tennessee in February and March 2010. We found the first signs of Geomyces destructans fungus (Gd) in a Pike County cave in eastern Missouri, April 2010. One little brown bat was found with a possible fungus on its wing, but no WNS infection in its deep tissues. Gray bats and a northern long-eared bat were netted by researchers in Shannon County in May 2010 and proved to have Gd but no infection.

The Department’s “White-Nose Syndrome Action Plan” went into effect in April 2010. Based on careful analysis, our WNS Committee and managers restricted access to Conservation Department caves. Access is permitted only if there is a “Restricted Access” sign posted at the entrance, or if a person has a special research permit. Other agencies announced their own cave closure rules.

The Department and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service formed the “Missouri WNS Working Group” to bring together state and federal agencies, private landowners and show cave operators how to share information and formulate a statewide, cooperative plan. Agencies and landowners are free to formulate their own policies on cave access. Most state and federal caves are closed or restricted to protect bats and avoid the accidental spread of fungal spores on clothing and caving