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Illinois scientists look for signs of disease that killed millions of bats

January 18, 2012 at 01:32 PM

The State Journal-Register

Researchers will survey Illinois caves with hibernating bats next month to check for evidence of white-nose syndrome, a disease that has decimated bat populations in 16 states and four Canadian provinces.

So far, the disease has not been found in Illinois, although it has been documented in Indiana and Kentucky.

A suspected occurrence in Missouri, just across the Mississippi River from Illinois, has not been confirmed yet.

“I am trying to remain optimistic and hope that perhaps we have dodged the WNS bullet for yet another year,” said Joe Kath, Illinois Department of Natural Resources endangered species program manager.

White-nose syndrome gets its name from the powdery white substance found on the ears, noses and wings of bats.

The fungus causes bats to rouse from hibernation every few days and consume critical energy reserves.

Most bats with white-nose syndrome die from starvation.

Bat populations have been decimated in caves where the fungus – known as Geomyces destructans - has been found with mortality rates approaching 100 percent.

It was discovered in New York in 2006.

Since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats have died from white-nose syndrome.

Of particular concern to scientists is the federally endangered Indiana bat.

In locations where white-nose syndrome has been found, Indiana bat populations have been cut in half.

Illinois has some key winter hibernacula for Indiana bats, including some located within former mines.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said bats provide natural pest control by consuming insects that can spread disease to people.

Ed Heske, a mammalogist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, said a diverse team of scientists plans to survey eight caves this winter, looking for evidence of white-nose syndrome and taking tissue, air and soil samples to develop a more complete picture of the cave environment including fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms present.

He said scientists were hoping bats could bounce back like birds did following the appearance of the West Nile virus.

“But bats have low reproductive biology,” Heske said. “Most have just a single offspring each year, and many do not reproduce until the second or third year of life.”

People assume bats are prolific breeders, but Heske said they have more in common with whales in that regard.

“People think of them as little flying mice or shrews, but they don’t have the same reproductive capacity,” he said.

To reduce the risk of helping spread the disease Heske said only a few scientists will enter the caves.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has developed protocols for researchers so equipment and clothing is properly decontaminated.

Caves owned and managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources or the U.S. Forest Service remained closed to the public.

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

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