KANSAS CITY — A disease that has killed millions of bats across multiple states and Canada has been found in Missouri, marking its advent west of the Mississippi River and spelling possible trouble for agriculture in the region, officials said Monday.
White nose syndrome has been confirmed in three bats in two caves in Lincoln County, north of St. Louis, the Missouri Department of Conservation said. The name describes a white fungus found on the faces and wings of infected bats and has not been found to infect humans or other animals. Scientists estimate the ailment has killed at least 5.7 million bats in 16 states and Canada.
First detected in 2006 west of Albany, N.Y., white nose syndrome has spread to hibernating bats from the Northeast to the South and had been found only as far west as Kentucky until the Missouri discovery. It also has been detected in four Canadian provinces.
"White-nose syndrome in Missouri is following the deadly pattern it has exhibited elsewhere," Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity said in a release. "First the fungus shows up on a few healthy bats. A couple of years later, the disease strikes. And if the pattern continues, we can expect that in another few years, the majority of Missouri's hibernating bats will be dead."
Ann Froschauer, lead spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's investigation into white nose syndrome, said the spread of the disease to Missouri could impact crops because bats subsist at least in part on crop pests.
"Bats are the primary predator of night-flying insects, and that includes moths and beetles ... and many of those are crop pests," she said.
Froschauer said a recent study estimated bats provide about $22 billion a year in "ecological services" in part because of all the pests they consume.
"They eat tons of insects," she said. "It's sort of exponential in terms of what the loss of the species can bring."
The conservation department estimated Missouri's gray bats alone eat about 540 tons of insects each year.
"They are our front-line defense against many insect pests including some moths, certain beetles and mosquitoes," said Tony Elliott, a bat biologist with the department of conservation.
White nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that prompts bats to wake from their winter hibernation and die after they fly into the cold air searching for insects. The fungus was found in Missouri in 2010, but the disease was only recently documented, according to the conservation department.
The conservation department said the caves in Missouri where the infected bans were found have been closed to the public because disturbing bats when they're in caves can stress the bats and affect their health.