The fungal disease white-nose syndrome and other threats to bat survival will be at the top of the agenda of an international meeting being held this week in St. Louis.
The conference is expected to draw about 350 bat specialists from government agencies, academia, environmental consulting firms and non-profits in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Sybill Amelon, a bat researcher with the U.S. Forest Service and one of the meeting’s organizers, said this is the first gathering of its kind to try to coordinate bat conservation efforts across North America. “Several of us that are on the planning committee have been envisioning this for probably 20 years,” Amelon said.
Bat populations are in decline. In the U.S., bats are losing habitat to urban and agricultural development and mining. And with the growth of wind farms, millions of migratory bats have been killed in collisions with turbine blades.
But in Missouri and most of the Eastern U.S., a fungal disease poses the biggest threat. “Right now, white-nose would have to be at the top of the list,” said Tony Elliott, a bat biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was accidentally brought into the U.S. from Europe. It infects bats as they hibernate in caves over the winter, eating away at the membranes of their wings and sometimes coating their muzzle with the white powdery growth for which the disease is named.
Elliot said it’s hard to estimate how many bats have died from white-nose syndrome.
That's because before the disease was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006-2007, most bat conservation efforts here had focused on endangered species.
But the fungus has taken a heavy toll on more common bats, whose population numbers were not well-known. “So we’re having to try to estimate the number of missing bats without having a real good sense of how many were there before,” Elliott said.
But there's no doubt that bat populations in some Missouri caves have been hit hard by white-nose syndrome since it arrived here three years ago. “We’ve gone from over 900 tri-colored bats at one site to less than 200,” Elliott said.
In neighboring Illinois, the U.S. Geological Survey recently confirmed that white-nose syndrome had spread to four additional counties this winter. The disease was first identified in that state in 2013.
Across eastern North America, white-nose syndrome is estimated to have killed close to six million bats since 2006.
Robert Mies puts that number closer to 10 million.
Mies, who directs the Organization for Bat Conservation, said there are a lot of misconceptions about bats. “People often fear bats, or kill them on purpose,” Mies said.
But he said bats play an important role. “Really, our ecosystems benefit greatly by having bats there because they’re the primary predators of nighttime insects,” Mies said. A single bat can eat thousands of insects in one night, including pests on forests and agricultural crops.
The conservation strategies developed at this week’s meeting will be incorporated into a North American Bat Strategic Plan that is currently under development.
Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience