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COLUMBIA, Mo. – In 2006, a mysterious disease began to ravage bat colonies in the eastern U.S., causing the number of bats in Vermont to decrease by 80 percent. In April 2010, the first cases of the disease were found in caves north of St. Louis. Kathryn Womack, a graduate researcher in the University of Missouri School of Natural Resources, is joining the “bat community” — a collection of bat experts and scientists — to identify and understand the disease and create a treatment plan to save North America’s bats.
Little is known about the disease scientists call White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), which describes the white fungus typically found on the faces and wings of infected bats. According to Bat Conservation International, WNS has killed more than 1 million bats in 11 states and Canada since 2006.
“The disease causes the bats to die of starvation during what is normally their hibernation period,” Womack said. “The fungus irritates them and causes them to awaken more often, using stored fat reserves they need to survive through the winter.”
Womack has several years of graduate research and work experience rescuing bats. Currently, Womack is successfully attaching small homing transmitters to the backs of endangered Indiana bats to track their movement patterns. Her knowledge of bat flight patterns is providing clues on how the disease spreads from cave to cave.
Finding a treatment for WNS will be difficult as most myotis bats, a genus of bats found in Missouri, die in captivity, Womack said. Currently, she ishelping to identify a method to keep captive bats alive long enough to test fungicide treatments.
“There is evidence that the deadly fungus lingers in a cave even after the bat population has died,” Womack said. “Therefore, new bats entering the cave are quickly infected.”
WNS appears to be infectious through migratory bat-to-bat and human-to-bat contact, so many states have limited access by tourists to caves where bats are known to live. In May, the Missouri Department of Conservation restricted access to caves. Between 500 and 5,000 caves in Missouri house bat colonies.
A significant drop in the bat population will have a huge impact on both the ecosystem and the economy. Bats provide nutrients for other cave life through their droppings, but also serve as insect predators. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the corn earworm moth, a favorite food for some bats, is estimated to cost American corn and cotton growers approximately $2 billion per year in crop losses and control efforts.
“A colony of only 500 Big Brown bats can eat up to 10 pounds of insects per night,” Womack said. “Without the hundreds of thousands of bats found in some Missouri caves, farmers will have to use more pesticides.”
Kathryn Womack, a graduate researcher in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, is tagging Indiana bats to track a fungal disease that has killed more than 1 million bats since 2006.