White-Nose Syndrome in Missouri

Disease Kills Bats, Affects Natural Insect Control

In mid-April 2010, the Department confirmed Missouri’s first signs of a disease in bats that scientists have named “white-nose syndrome" (WNS). The name describes a white fungus, Geomyces destructans, which typically appears on the faces and wings of infected bats.

WNS Does Not Affect Humans or Other Animals

The WNS fungus appears to spread mainly through bat-to-bat contact and has not been found to infect humans or other animals. It thrives in the cool, damp conditions found in many caves, which are also ideal hibernation and roosting sites for many bat species.

Please Stay Out of MDC Caves

As a longstanding policy to protect bats and the fragile, unique cave ecosystems they depend on, MDC restricts access to caves on Department lands. We permit access to these caves only if you have an MDC Special Use Permit for research, recreation or education purposes.

Clean Your Clothes and Gear Between Cave Visits!

While WNS is passed mainly from bat to bat, spores from the fungus could possibly be carried on the wind or via contaminated clothing and gear that have been in an infected cave. Cleaning all caving gear with bleach or certain quaternary ammonium disinfectants reduces the risk of infecting new caves and bats. Disinfect caving gear according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's recent advisory (see USFWS: White Nose Syndrome under External Links below). Don’t use caving gear in Missouri that has been used in states affected by WNS or states adjoining those affected states.

Report Signs of WNS (see Tony Elliott's contact info below)

  • Do not to handle any bats.
  • Contact MDC if you find dead bats with white, fuzzy fungal growth.
  • Contact MDC if you see bats flying during the winter.

Facts about WNS

What is White-nose Syndrome?

  • WNS is a disease caused by a fungus, Geomyces destructans that attacks cave-hibernating bats and has only been known in the U.S. since 2006. First discovered in New York State in 2006, the disease has spread quickly into 19 states and four Canadian provinces. Since 2007, it has been documented to kill at least 5.5 million bats of six species. All species of bats known to be susceptible are found in Missouri. WNS has only been found to infect bats. Humans and other animals are not known to be affected.

If I find a bat that looks sick, what should I do?

  • Many bats in spring and summer may be sick with various illnesses or exhausted. The public should not handle bats, but contact your local MDC office or agent. There is a small but real risk that the bat could be rabid, especially in summer, and rabies is fatal to humans and mammals. WNS is not associated with rabies. WNS is more likely to be found in late winter or early spring, and the bat would likely have a white, fuzzy fungal growth on the face, ears and wings, but not always.
  • If you find a bat with WNS symptoms, call Tony Elliott, whose name and contact info are at the bottom of this page.

Why are you now recommending cavers disinfect their gear before entering some MDC caves?

  • Cleaning all caving gear with bleach or certain quaternary ammonium disinfectants reduces the risk of infecting new caves and bats. We can provide more information on this subject. See the USFWS website under External Links below for additional disinfection protocols.

Is WNS in Missouri yet?

  • Yes. MDC found the first signs of the fungus in a privately owned cave in Pike County, confirmed by laboratory results on April 13, 2010. One little brown bat was found with incipient fungal growth on its wing, but it was otherwise healthy. In March 2012, three more bats from two caves in Lincoln County were confirmed to have the WNS disease. No bat deaths from WNS have been confirmed in the state.

Why are additional bat caves being closed, especially if we disinfect our clothes?

  • Bats sick with WNS are very weak and further human disturbance increases their mortality rate. So PLEASE DON'T DISTURB THE BATS. Closing additional bat caves also reduces the risk of human-borne infection between caves. The lives of millions of bats are at stake.

Why should I care so much about bats?

  • Because they eat night-flying insects, bats play an important role in Missouri’s economy and ecology. 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.
  • 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.

What bat species are susceptible to WNS?

  • Missouri has at least 12 resident species of bats in Missouri, and six species are susceptible to WNS infection. These include the big brown bat, eastern small-footed bat, little brown bat, northern long-eared bat, federally endangered Indiana bat and eastern pipistrelle or tri-colored bat. Missouri’s other “cave bats” not yet known to contract WNS include southeastern bat, Rafinesque’s big-eared bat and federally endangered gray bat. “Tree bats” (don’t significantly use caves) are not known to contract WNS. Missouri’s species include eastern red bat, hoary bat and silver-haired bat.

Can’t the bats just live somewhere else besides a cave? What about bat houses or bridges?

  • Many bat species require cold, quiet conditions to hibernate, some for up to eight months. Certain caves and abandoned, underground mines provide just the right conditions for efficient hibernation, but this new WNS fungus thrives in cold, damp conditions. If the bats try to hibernate in warmer or colder sites, they may starve before springtime. Artificial habitats, such as bat houses, bridges or attics, only suit some bats during the summer. These species normally return to caves for hibernation.

What is MDC doing about WNS?

  • 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.

How long will this WNS problem be with us, and will it infect humans?

  • No one can predict how long the WNS epidemic will be here. It has not infected more than six species of bats so far, but it could spread to other species of bats that come in contact during fall mating swarms or during hibernation. The fungus dies out in warmer, drier conditions.

Is there a cure for WNS?

  • There is no cure, but researchers are studying possible medical treatments. We are hopeful that a safe, contained treatment of the bats themselves might be found through research.

Are show caves being closed because of WNS?

  • No private show caves have closed in Missouri because of WNS. Our 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. MDC and show-cave owners are discussing a joint project to educate show-cave visitors about the value of bats and how to reduce the effects of WNS and disturbance of bats.

What should landowners do if they have a bat cave on their property?

  • There are more than 6,300 caves in Missouri, and 74 percent of them are privately owned. More than 500 are known to house bat colonies, but that number may be as high as 5,000. MDC welcomes opportunities to collaborate with private landowners on cave management. Landowners are asked to require cave visitors to disinfect their clothing, boots and gear before entering a Missouri cave, if they have been in any cave (see above question on disinfection). Visitors also should not enter bat caves between mid-October and mid-April, to avoid disturbance of hibernating bats. MDC can assist cave owners in protecting caves by surveying bat use of caves, providing signs, responding to trespass or vandalism issues, and possibly erecting a cave gate or other type of protection.

Who is my MDC contact for bats and WNS?

Tony Elliott
Resource Scientist
Missouri Department of Conservation
660-785-2424, ext. 257
Tony.Elliott@mdc.mo.gov
Key Messages: 
Missourians care about conserving forests, fish and wildlife.
White-Nose Syndrome Action Plan

Download this document to learn more about MDC's White-Nose Syndrome Action Plan, published April, 2010.