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OUTDOORS: White-nose syndrome found in Illinois bats

This phofrom October 2008 shows little brown bsuffering from white-nose syndrome. The bwas found cave New York. | AP

This photo from October 2008 shows a little brown bat suffering from white-nose syndrome. The bat was found in a cave in New York. | AP

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Updated: April 4, 2013 6:33AM

The inevitable arrival of white-nose syndrome in Illinois bats was confirmed in February in four Illinois counties.

On a broader level, WNS shows how connected much of nature and our world are.

Illinois makes the 20th state where WNS, a disease fatal to several bat species, was found. The confirmations came from bats found in private caves in Hardin and Pope counties (far southern Illinois) and Monroe County (southwest) and from Pecumsaugan Creek-Blackball Mines Nature Preserve in LaSalle County (north).

WNS has spread steadily across North America since it first was detected in New York in 2006. Since then, it has killed more than 5.7 million cave-dwelling bats in the eastern third of North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Joe Kath, the endangered-species manager for Illinois, expected the WNS research team to find it in Illinois last February, but it didn’t.

‘‘We followed exactly the same rigorous protocol for our WNS surveys this year as we did last year,’’ he emailed in a follow-up to a USFWS conference call. ‘‘All of the infected sites this year showed animals at or near the inner entrance zone of the cave.

‘‘The infected animals were easy to spot. Last year, the very same sites all looked clean — no signs of infected animals. With this in mind, I don’t think WNS was present in Illinois last year [early 2012].

‘‘It is likely that infected animals entered Illinois in the summer and fall of 2012. These animals proceeded to hibernate in Illinois. While hibernating, the cold/moist environment of most caves causes/caused the fungus to become active and invade the animal’s epidermal tissues. This rapid rate of infection ultimately results in the classic white fungal growth on the muzzle of the bat . . . what we saw just a few weeks ago.’’

WNS isn’t known to affect people, pets or livestock, but it is thought it might be carried among caves and mines by humans.

With that in mind, all caves owned or managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources were closed in 2010. All caves in the Shawnee National Forest, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, were closed as of 2009.

‘‘The first year of confirmed infection, the public will likely not notice anything different on the landscape,’’ Kath emailed. ‘‘In subsequent years, massive die-offs will occur and the number of bats on the landscape will plummet —less bats foraging, less bats using bat houses, etc. This has been witnessed in the East, where WNS is widespread.’’

The USFWS estimates bats might do as much as $3 billion in pest control. That might be most indicative of how interconnected we are in nature. Bats are the only major predator of night-flying insects. A single brown bat can eat up to 7,000 mosquitoes in a night.

‘‘Massive bat die-offs will ultimately cause an increase in certain insect populations, some of which predate upon agricultural crops like corn and soybeans,’’ Kath emailed.

In particular, bats help with control of corn-bore moth and other insects that prey on corn.

‘‘Especially in first year, there won’t be anything that the public or bat community will be able to detect,’’ Jeremy Coleman, the national WNS coordinator for the USFWS, said in the conference call. ‘‘In coming years, bats will just disappear.’’

A loss.

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