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Bat disease confirmed in Missouri, likely to spread

A little brown bat showing symptoms of white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont (April, 2009).
(Marvin Moriarity/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
A little brown bat showing symptoms of white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont (April, 2009).

Updated at 3:00 p.m. to clarify and expand description of white-nose syndrome.

A disease that has killed millions of bats across the eastern U.S. has been confirmed in Missouri for the first time.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) received confirmation that “white-nose syndrome” has been found in three bats from two public caves in Lincoln County, about 50 miles northwest of St. Louis. The U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., did the testing and confirmed that one little brown bat and two tri-colored bats had been infected.

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus, Geomyces destructans, that grows on the faces and wings of infected bats. Scientists don't know exactly how the fungus kills the bats. One hypothesis is that the fungus causes the bats to wake up too early from hibernation, leading them to starve to death. Other possibilities are that the bats become dehydrated, or that wing damage caused by the fungus makes the bats more susceptible to predation or less able to forage for food.

White-nose syndrome spreads mainly through bat-to-bat contact and has not been found to infect humans or other animals. Humans can spread the fungus from cave to cave on their clothing or other belongings, however.

The specific names and locations of the caves in Lincoln County where the infected bats were found are not being disclosed to help protect the remaining bats in the caves. “Disturbing bats in caves while they roost or hibernate can increase their stress and further weaken their health,” said MDC Bat Biologist Tony Elliott.

The two caves are closed to public access.

Many bats eat insects, and Elliot says bats play an essential role in pest control. “They are our front-line defense against many insect pests including some moths, certain beetles and mosquitoes. Missouri’s 775,000 gray bats alone eat more than 223 billion bugs a year, or about 540 tons.”

Evidence of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was first detected in Missouri in April 2010, on a little brown bat found in a privately owned cave in Pike County. In May 2010, evidence of the fungus was detected on five federally endangered gray bats and on a northern long-eared bat netted outside a public cave in Shannon County. The three bats with white-nose syndrome in Lincoln County are the first confirmed cases in Missouri of the actual white-nose syndrome disease.

Although many public caves in Missouri are closed to prevent the spread of this disease, just under three-quarters of Missouri's 6,300 caves are privately owned. The Missouri Department of Conservation asks visitors to private caves to check with landowners before entering caves, and to use U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decontamination protocols before and after visits to reduce the risk for accidental spread of the fungus.