Illinois scientists confirmed a deadly disease in bats, forcing a state agency to keep many caves closed to visitors.
Illinois is the 20th state to confirm the disease, white-nose syndrome, in bats.
The disease spreads rapidly and since Illinois is home to many federally-endangered bat species, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources decided to keep many caves closed to visitors. The caves were closed in 2010 in an attempt to protect the bats from the disease, which can be carried in and out of caves by human visitors. Also, all caves within the Shawnee National Forest, which are managed federally, will remain closed. Those caves closed to the public in 2009.
The disease fatally affects seven hibernating base species including: little brown bat, big brown bat, northern long-eared bat, tri-colored bat, eastern small-footed bat, the endangered Indiana bat and the endangered gray bat.
The closures will not cure the disease, but hopefully help slow the spread, said Joe Kath, endangered species manager at the IDNR.
White-nose syndrome is not known to affect people, pets, or livestock but is harmful or lethal to hibernating bats, killing 90 percent or more of some species of bats in caves where the fungus has lasted for a year or longer, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The name of the disease refers to the white fungal growth often found on the noses of infected bats.
Bats are the only major predator of night-flying insects and play a crucial role in the environment. A single big brown bat can eat between 3,000 and 7,000 mosquitos in a night, with large populations of bats consuming thousands of tons of potentially harmful forest and agricultural pests annually.
Researchers in Illinois and across the U.S. are working to find a way to mitigate the disease. Federal, state and local organizations continue to focus on conservation, containment and education.