Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Sept. 1, 2010 Volume 32, No. 2

As fungus spreads, MU researcher joins effort to save bats


White-nose syndrome has killed 1 million bats since 2006

A graduate researcher in MU’s School of Natural Resources is helping to investigate a mysterious disease that has wiped out entire bat colonies in the eastern United States.

Kathryn Womack’s knowledge of bat habitat and her experience in rescuing sick and injured bats could help develop a treatment for White-Nose Syndrome, a fungus typically found on the muzzles, wings and ears of infected bats. The disease has killed more than 1 million bats in 11 states and Canada since 2006. Yet little is known about the origins of WNS, which has spread from the northeast at an alarming rate. In April, WNS was found in caves north of St. Louis.

“The disease causes the bats to die of starvation during what is normally their hibernation period,” Womack explained. “The fungus irritates them and causes them to awaken more often, using stored fat reserves they need to survive through the winter.”

Womack’s knowledge of bat flight patterns also offers clues to how the disease spreads from cave to cave. There is evidence that the deadly fungus lingers in a cave even after the bat population has died. “This could have dire effects as many of the 12 species of bats in Missouri visit many caves during the fall swarm or mating period,” she said.

In addition to her research, Womack volunteers with Bat World Ozarks, a bat rehabilitation operation run by her advisor, Sybill Amelon, research biologist for the U.S. Forest Service and postdoctoral associate at the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Amelon has incorporated Womack’s WNS studies into her bat habitat research, in which she attaches a small homing transmitter to the backs of the endangered Indiana bat to track their movement patterns during pregnancy and lactation. 

The economic and ecological impact of WNS has yet to be determined, although farmers will probably see the first signs. Bats are voracious eaters of insects, so fewer bats will mean that farmers will have to use more pesticides.

The Missouri soybean and corn industry could be especially hard hit. The corn earworm moth, estimated to cost American corn and cotton growers approximately $2 billion per year in crop losses and control efforts, is a favorite food for some bats. 

Womack, a two-time recipient of a research assistantship from the U.S. Forest Service, plans to earn a PhD, then continue her research as well as promote conservation practices.

— Randy Mertens