Some Illinois Department of Natural Resources experts are keeping a watchful eye on bats and a disease that has been killing them in many states, but they won’t know until this winter or next the extent of its effects.
White-nose syndrome, a disease decimating bat populations in the eastern United States, was detected in Illinois for the first time this February, raising concerns for the environment, the agricultural industry, and of course, the bats.
The disease, fatal to several bat species, was found in bats from four counties including La Salle, as well as Monroe in southwestern Illinois and Hardin and Pope in the far southern part of the state, The Associated Press reported in March. Also in recent months, scientists announced the disease had spread to bats in Arkansas and Minnesota, said Joe Kath, endangered species manager for the DNR.
Kath said the disease flourishes in cold, damp conditions, such as the caves in which certain species of bat hibernate. Illinois has 13 species of bats, and the seven that hibernate in caves are likely to get white-nose syndrome. A cave east of La Salle in a restricted access area is the hibernating place for five species — little brown, big brown, tri-colored and northern long-eared bats and the federally endangered Indiana brown bat, Kath said.
In the first year the syndrome was detected in Illinois, scientists did not see significant die-off or declines in populations, but Kath said that was a typical observation in eastern states where the disease first showed up.
“Typically the second and third years, you start to see massive die-off and noted decrease in population,” Kath said. “Unfortunately we’re anticipating seeing statistically significant decreases in bat populations.”
The symptoms of white-nose syndrome, do not present themselves readily in warm weather. This coming winter, the DNR and other bat experts will perform studies with the same vigor as they did in the past two winters when they were on watch for the syndrome.
In March, the disease already was in 20 states, most of them in the eastern U.S., as well as five Canadian provinces. White-nose syndrome spreads rapidly and has the potential to infect half of the bat species in North America, the department said.
Kath said this week there are many theories, studies and experiments going on, but to date there is no cure or preventative solution to white-nose syndrome.
Currently, it affects seven hibernating bat species. Research has shown that infected bats awake from hibernation as often as every three to four days as opposed to the normal 10-20 days. The fungus damages the connective tissue, muscle and skin of bats and disrupts their physiological functions, The Associated Press reported. Unable to find insects to eat in the winter, they starve or freeze to death. Tracking of the disease began in 2006 in New York State, The Associated Press reported.
Researchers have been checking on bats in La Salle County for several years.
For example, in November 2011, the NewsTribune reported that a Bucknell University group working on an immunology study and keeping an eye on the spread of white-nose syndrome had help from Kath in collecting bats for their study. They took the healthy bats they found near La Salle to the university and then infected them with the disease to study its effects, the NewsTribune reported.
Bats play a critical environmental role, gobbling up thousands of tons of potentially harmful forest and agricultural pests each year, including mosquitoes, The Associated Press reported.
While researchers search for a way to fight white-nose syndrome, federal and state officials have focused on trying to contain the disease.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has kept caves it owns or manages closed because officials believe the fungus that causes the disease can be carried among caves by humans on clothing, footwear and caving gear.