COLUMBIA — A new fungal disease that affects bats, known as white-nose syndrome, has been found in Pike County in northeast Missouri, according to a news release from the State Department of Conservation on Monday.
Bill Elliott, a cave biologist with the conservation department, said the disease was seen on a single bat found in a private cave. The bat showed only the first signs of the disease.
"It's an early warning sign," he said. "If it's in one cave in Missouri, it could be in just about any cave in Missouri."
The fungus makes it hard for them to hibernate, Elliott said. When they wake up, they go in search of insects even though it's winter.
He explained that this behavior interferes with the bats' main survival strategy — building up fat reserves to survive months of hibernation. Depleting their body fat puts them at risk of freezing or starving to death.
A million bats have already died in 11 states and in Canada. Bat Conservation International, a non-profit organization based in Austin, Texas, estimates that they would have consumed 700,000 tons of insects each year — equal to the weight of 175,000 elephants.
Infected bats were first found in 2006 in a cave in New York. Mylea Bayless, a conservation biologist at Bat Conservation International, said the disease is primarily spread through bat-to-bat contact and is caused by the white fungus, Geomyces destructans.
The fungus spreads when infected bats, or bats carrying fungal spores, migrate between winter and summer roosting sites.
Elliott said "the spread of it almost seems to be accelerating." It traveled a distance of 700 miles last year alone, he said.
"This particular fungus thrives at 41-to-50 degrees in damp conditions," he said.
Caves are ideal breeding grounds.
The fungus infects the deep epidermal layers of the bats' skin.
The disease symptoms disappear in the spring and summer as bats forage outside where the humidity is usually lower than inside the caves or mines where they hibernate.
Elliott said that since weather is warm enough for bats to go outside now, the conservation department may not be able to determine how far the fungus has spread in the state until winter, when the bats are exposed to conditions that favor the development of the disease.
Bayless said currently six bat species are known to be affected by the syndrome, but 25 of the 46 species in North America could be susceptible. Bat species that roost in trees or migrate during winter are not vulnerable because they avoid the moist conditions where the fungus grows.
The disease has recently been seen in bats in Europe, but it does not seem to be fatal, she said.
Scientists have several theories to explain the difference between European and American bats, but Bayless said most believe the fungus is native to Europe and those bats have a natural tolerance. In North America, the fungus is an invasive species and the bats have no tolerance, she said.
To prepare for the arrival of the disease in Missouri, Elliott said the conservation department adopted a "white nose syndrome action plan" earlier this month.
The plan institutes measures to protect the 12 species of bats known to live in Missouri. For researchers who work with bats, extensive decontamination procedures are required to prevent the spread of fungal spores.
Caves on land managed by the conservation department may only be entered if there is a "cave open" sign at the entrance, or if the department gives special permission for entry.