It's been a while since we had any news about white-nose syndrome (WNS) because the disease is only active while bats are hibernating. This past winter hibernation season brought continued spread of WNS in both the already affected area and into new states. Biologists documented the southernmost (Alabama) and the westernmost (Missouri) confirmations of the disease, bringing the total to 19 states and four Canadian provinces confirmed with the disease. Two additional states, Iowa and Oklahoma, that have confirmed the presence of the fungus that causes the disease, Geomyces destructans, but so far, have seen no signs of the disease in bat populations there.
If you've been following WNS for a while you may recall that Geomyces destructans had been documented in Missouri several years ago, but we had yet to confirm the disease in bats. I think we were all hopeful and waiting, fingers crossed, to see if Missouri's bats would get another disease-free year. I was watching Missouri particularly closely, I've spent a lot of time working with resource scientist Tony Elliott and cave biology assistant Shelly Colatskie with the Missouri Department of Conservation. They have invited me along to assist on surveys surveys, have written blogs about working on WNS, and are always helpful in providing opportunities for journalists to get out in the field to see bats and learn more about WNS and bat conservation.
So, the day we got the news from Tony that they had confirmed WNS was especially tough for those of us who work on this disease day after day. Here, Tony describes the experience of documenting WNS in Missouri for the first time.
Over the last three winters bat and cave biologists from the Missouri Department of Conservation (including myself) along with partner organizations and agencies have increased our survey efforts in caves and mines throughout the state as a part of the white-nose syndrome surveillance effort and to improve our knowledge of Missouri’s winter bat population prior to the arrival of the disease. In May of 2010 presence of Geomyces destructans was documented, through genetic identification, in 2 counties within Missouri. We expected to see clear signs of the disease (visible fungal growth) sometime during our 2010/2011 surveys, we were just hoping that we would not see mortality that winter. However, surveys of 29 hibernation sites during that winter did not detect any occurrences of the disease or fungus.
During the winter of 2011/2012 we surveyed a total of 36 caves and mines throughout the state and again were expecting to see signs. When late February came and we were surveying caves in the southeastern portion of Missouri closest to confirmed, white-nose syndrome positive sites but we did not find evidence of the disease I began to hope that we might make it through another winter.
On March 14, 2012 I was in lead as we crawled into a Lincoln County cave with a small entrance. I sat on a small ledge and came face-to-face with a little brown bat and my stomach sank. It was a small spot on the bat’s muzzle, but clearly visible was the white, fungal-growth that is the classic presentation (and source of the name) of white-nose syndrome. We sampled the individual for submission to the laboratory. There is a second cave located within a mile of that location that we had not planned to survey, but because of our confidence that the first submission would be confirmed as white-nose syndrome we asked local staff to visit the second cave. Two days later I received pictures of two tri-colored bats with more extensive visible fungal growth and my stomach sank further. I was sure that these would be confirmed positive cases in two different caves meaning that hope of just having an isolated case was unrealistic. The National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin confirmed that white-nose syndrome was affecting all three of these individuals. These were the first confirmed cases of the actual disease in Missouri and west of the Mississippi River. Thankfully, we have yet to see mortality due to the disease in Missouri, but it is probably just a matter of time.
It has been six months since I saw that little white spot in the glare of my headlamp and I am still trying to come to grips with what that may mean for the future of Missouri’s bat population. Seeing that one little spot of fungus here was bad enough, I really do not want to see a bunch of dead and dying bats. I try to maintain hope that the resilience of nature will allow some of our cave hibernating bats to survive, but I know that we have some very vulnerable populations. Most of the Indiana bat population in Missouri hibernates in a small number of important sites, and if white-nose syndrome impacts those sites heavily that population is in grave danger of extirpation. We continue to work with the impressive array of partners within the state, federally and internationally and that cooperation is rewarding, but the reward we are all hoping for is successful implementation of mitigation or control measure that reduce the impact of this disease.
Working with bats and WNS is a tough business, and the personal toll on scientists and biologists when discovering the disease in a new place or population is something I don't think we talk nearly enough about. There is a real human connection with bats, very directly for some of us who have been working with bats for a few years or for our entire career. Maybe not quite as directly- but just as meaningful- for the people who sit on their porches or walk down their lanes or lie on the dock and watch the amazing nightly aerial acrobatics display of bats at twilight.
Like Tony, I think it is really important to maintain hope in the resilience of nature, and I'm heartened by the amazing coordination and dedication of all the scientists and biologists involved in the WNS response. I'd personally like to say thanks to Tony and Shelly for always being willing to do the extra work to help us tell the WNS story and get people interested and excited about bats.