White Nose Syndrome in bats pushes further into Missouri

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COLUMBIA - Missouri is on the front lines of an infestation, with species of bats facing extinction. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, the bat population in the United States has dropped 80 percent in about a decade.

Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or White Nose Syndrome (WNS), is actually a fungus that infects and covers the membranes of a bat; that includes the tail, ears, wings, and/or nose. The fungus appears, as the name implies, as white fuzz that acts like an irritant to the bats.

Tony Elliot, bat biologist for Missouri Department of Conservation, said the fungus is waking the bats up, and that's most likely the issue.

"When we find them dead from what we think is WNS, we almost always find them with their fat reserves depleted," Elliot said. "We know that the fungus is making them wake up out of their hibernative state, and we also know it's very costly on those fat reserves to be woken up out of hibernation."   

Kristen Alvey-Mudd, executive director of Missouri Bat Census, said "Imagine it like you fell asleep on the couch watching T-V, and you keep getting woken up."

Alvey-Mudd has been exploring caves in her own back yard since she was nine years old, and now she monitors bats statewide.

"I've hit 167 caves so far since Christmas," Alvey-Mudd said. "So that's maybe, two or three a day? This is the busy season, and I'm pretty worn out, but I love it."

The Missouri Bat Census monitors 719 caves in Missouri, which is only around ten percent of the total in the "cave state". It keeps track of the biodiversity of bat species in their winter habitats and monitors the growth of WNS within those populations.

And the numbers don't look promising.

Severe visible WNS on wings, muzzle and ears of a tri-color bat in a Crawford County CavePhoto, courtesy of the Missouri Bat Census.

"In the winter of 2013, we had one case of WNS in this cave. Now about one in three bats in this cave are infected," Alvey-Mudd said. "It's now full-blown WNS."

While the killer fungus infects more and more of the North American continent, bats aren't the only thing in danger.

In a line of eco-dependency, Elliot said the bat population's appetite for bugs is the equivalent of five billion dollars worth of pesticides for the United States.

Without bats eating the bugs that like to eat our crops, farmers could have a harder time fighting growing insect numbers.

Tim Reinbott, superintendent of the Bradford Research Center, works specifically with bats when he plans where he will plant crops.

"We actually have bat houses here on the research center, and we've placed them near crop fields as well as water sources." Reinbott said. "So they can feed on insects from the crops as well as the water sources."

Reinbott said he sees the issues that the agricultural society will face if the bat population edges toward extinction.

"Corn prices will jump up, but it's more our meat prices that will be the problem if anything. Each pound of beef comes from four or five pounds of grain, and if that grain is more expensive, that beef just became that much more expensive."

Currently, there is no way to stop the spread of the killer fungus. But that doesn't mean that people are not trying.

Research Wildlife Biologist Sybill Amelon is currently working with Chris Cornelison from Georgia State University on developing a solution to WNS. Her work has led her closer to finding a solution. This winter, Amelon was working in a University of Missouri laboratory with bats infected with WNS.

"We were very encouraged, it was a lab test, and a very small lab test, so we can't say that it will work anywhere but in a lab," she said. "But we are trying some similar field experiments to see if we can get similar results with bats in the wild."

Amelon said three species in particular are the most susceptible to WNS: the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat, and tri-colored bat. The northern long-ear is currently proposed to be protected by the endangered species list, while the other two species are still being reviewed.

All other species of bats have a better chance at surviving the fungus, but Amelon said, even those species face substantial losses.

"When those populations drop drastically, it could take, at minimum, a century before those populations were able to recover," Amelon said. "With only one pup a year, we figure it will take several generations before they recover, if they recover. There could also be a random event that wipes them out while they are at such a low population count."

While the numbers are stacked against the bats, Alvey-Mudd said that she's hopeful that Amelon's research can help.

"I still believe that the study is the most promising going on," Alvey-Mudd said. "I do have private sites that have mass mortality, and I basically have to record the casualties and calamities that occur, when I go spend some time in the lab, that's the counter to those days. I'm really hopeful."

The map below shows counties in Missouri with suspected or confirmed bat white nose syndrom. The counties are color coordinated by year.

  • 2009-2010: Light Blue
  • 2010-2011: Green
  • 2011-2012: None
  • 2012-2013: Gold/Yellow
  • 2013-2014 Dark Blue
  • 2014-2015: Red

Click on a county for futher information.

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