Al Hicks, NY Dept. of Enviromental Conservation
Little brown bat with White-Nose Syndrome.
The Missouri Department of Conservation knew it was coming, but now it's official: White-Nose Syndrome has been confirmed in a population of bats in an undisclosed Missouri cave. In 2010, symptoms were spotted on a little brown bat in Pike County
, and five gray bats also showed symptoms in a public cave in Shannon County in 2010. Now MDC has confirmed the disease on a little brown bat and two tri-colored bats in Lincoln County.
The disease is not fatal to humans, but it is lethal to bats. They
exhibit a white, fungus-like growth on their muzzles and wings. WNS
causes bats to move to cold areas of their cave homes, burning more body
fat, and they fly during the day when they should be hibernating, further
This is obviously bad news for the bats; since being first identified in 2007 by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, WNS has spread to nineteen states and four Canadian Provinces, inexorably spreading across the country.
And it does affect humans, even though it's not lethal to us. Missouri has abundant cave systems -- 6,300 of 'em according to the MDC -- with large bat populations. Those bats eat hundreds of tons of insects every year, proving to be a boon to farmers and gardeners state-wide. Bat droppings serve as a food source for other cave dwellers, which helps keep those cave systems healthy. And bats themselves serve as food for other species such as owls and snakes. Remove bats from the food chain -- and WNS does, often annihilating entire cave populations as the disease spreads -- and ripples spread in all directions through the food chain.
And then there's the problem of cave closures. WNS can affix to our clothing and boots, so if you're a frequent spelunker, you're also a potential delivery vector for the disease. Restricting access to Missouri's publicly-owned caves is often the most secure way of containing the disease. For our privately-owned caves, the MDC has established a decontamination protocol for cavers that is quite thorough. That method is detailed here
; it requires personal responsibility on the part of the caver that some may not be willing to exercise. But the future of one of our natural resources is at stake.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains an online resource center
for White-Nose Syndrome that's worth checking out if you're one of the many Missourians who plan to enjoy some vacation time in our caves this summer. There is no known cure for White-Nose Syndrome.