PITTSBURG — A disease which can be fatal to bats which has been spreading in North America in recent years appears to have become more widespread in Kansas since first being detected in the state in 2018, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
“White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease that affects hibernating bats,” a recent KDWPT press release notes. “The fungus is spread through bat-to-bat contact, but not all bat species are affected equally. WNS is named for the white fungal growth observed around the nose of infected bats,” according to the KDWPT. “The fungus can invade the skin of hibernating bats and cause damage to the wings. It triggers hibernating bats to use up fat reserves, forcing them to leave the hibernacula in search of food. This occurs in the middle of winter when outside conditions are harsh and food (insects) is scarce, ultimately leading to death by starvation and/or dehydration.”
The latest survey results found Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), the fungus known to cause white-nose syndrome, in Rooks County in North Central Kansas. “Though the fungus was detected, no bats showed signs of white-nose syndrome at the time of the survey,” the KDWPT release notes.
Amy Hammesfahr, a graduate research assistant in the Pittsburg State University Biology Department, whose research focuses on bats, noted that two thirds of North American bat species appear susceptible to white-nose syndrome.
“There are 12 confirmed species in North America that have white-nose syndrome, and then there’s 6 species that only have the presence of Pd on them but they have not developed the clinical signs,” Hammesfahr said.
Aside from Rooks County, surveys conducted between February and April to identify the presence of Pd fungus were conducted in several other counties, including Crawford County, where the fungus was not detected. In 2018, however, when Pd was first found in Kansas, locations where it was detected included Cherokee County. Cherokee County was not among the sites surveyed in 2019.
In Missouri, Pd was first detected nearly a decade ago, and cases of white-nose syndrome confirmed in 2012. Since first being discovered in New York State in 2006, white-nose syndrome has been found to have spread to 33 states.
Bat species found in Southeast Kansas which are susceptible to white-nose syndrome include the tri-colored bat, the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat, the big brown bat, and the gray bat. Of these, the northern long-eared bat is federally listed as threatened because of white-nose syndrome. The gray bat is federally listed as endangered. Although this designation was given decades ago because of human disturbance of its cave habitat, it has also been impacted by white-nose syndrome, Hammesfahr said.
“The tri-colored bat and the little brown bat are not endangered but they have declined significantly from white-nose syndrome,” Hammesfahr said.
There are also two bat species found in Southeast Kansas — the eastern red bat and the silver-haired bat — that have been found with Pd fungus on their skin but do not appear to be susceptible to white-nose syndrome. Hammesfahr said it is not yet fully understood why some bat species are more resistant to Pd or to white-nose syndrome.
“White-nose syndrome is affecting hibernating bats in the winter that are in caves, because the fungus survives in caves and it’s found in the cave environment, and the bats are over-wintering side by side together and so they’re spreading to it each other,” she said. “And humans may be inadvertently assisting in the spread of the disease, like on their clothing and footwear.”
Hammesfahr said it is important that anyone who is going into caves follow decontamination procedures to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome.
“In any cave in Kansas you should use caution that it could be contaminated,” she said. “If you don’t know, you have to assume it is.” In some cases public access to caves is restricted to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome, Hammesfahr added, and in some places permits are required to enter caves.
Decontamination procedures for those entering caves or going from one cave to another include removing soil and using a 70 percent isopropanol mixture to spray on their boots, and laundering clothing in very hot water to help kill fungal spores. Lysol disinfecting wipes also work well to decontaminate equipment, Hammesfahr said.
“There’s a number of chemicals you could use really that have been laboratory tested to kill the fungal spores, so individuals that are engaging in those kinds of cave environments, underground environments where bats are going to be found, they should be following those decontamination procedures to help prevent the spread of disease,” she said, adding that whenever possible, entering a cave that has not been affected by white-nose syndrome using the same equipment that has been used to enter a contaminated cave is a risk that should be avoided.
Hammesfahr noted that Grotto organizations, or caving club chapters of the National Speleological Society, can provide information on appropriate procedures for entering caves.
“It’s a group that’s basically found across the country of like-minded individuals that like to explore caves,” Hammesfahr said of the group. Grotto chapters include the Kansas Speleological Society, based in Scranton, Kansas, and the Kansas City Area Grotto, based in Gladstone, Missouri.
“I think it really is important for individuals to report sightings of bats to the state, because there are only so many people able to work on bats in the state,” Hammesfahr said. She added that reporting bats found on private land can be especially helpful in improving the state’s understanding of where bat populations are located. If you find a dead bat that may be infected with white-nose syndrome or another disease, however, you should not pick it up or disturb it.