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White Nose Syndrome Strikes World's Largest Colony of Gray Bats

Update Date: Apr 09, 2013 11:43 AM EDT

White nose syndrome has devastated the bat species in North America, responsible for killing about 7 million bats in 22 states as far west as Missouri and five Canadian provinces. Now, news of the disease has just become worse. The United States' Fish and Wildlife Service has just confirmed that white nose syndrome has appeared in Fern Cave National Refuge in Alabama, which may affect as many as 1 million gray bats, a species that had, until now, managed to evade the disease. The refuge is the single largest home for the endangered gray bat.

"With over a million hibernating gray bats, Fern Cave is undoubtedly the single most significant hibernaculum for the species," Paul McKenzie, Endangered Species Coordinator for USFWS, said to Mother Jones. "Although mass mortality of gray bats has not yet been confirmed from any WNS infected caves in which the species hibernates, the documentation of the disease from Fern Cave is extremely alarming and could be catastrophic."

White nose syndrome's scientific name is the ominous Geomyces destructans. The fungus affects the bats' muzzle, ears and wings. It causes bats to fly out in the middle of the day during the winters, when they are supposed to be hibernating, and crowd the entrances of the caves and mines during wintertime. Because bats feast on insects like mosquitoes and agricultural pests, the disease generally causes the bats to starve to death, according to the Los Angeles Times. Some colonies have had a mortality rate of 100 percent.

First spotted in New York in 2006, it is unknown how the disease arrived in North America, though the predominant theory is that researchers brought a similar fungus to the North American bats from an expedition in Europe. Regardless, the dwindling population of bats is bad news for bats and humans alike. Reuters reports that bats are estimated to save agricultural industries billions of dollars in pest control; the creatures also pollinate many plants.

Despite the fact that the decline in bat population is seen as catastrophic, response to the epidemic has not been as swift as conservationists would like. In Colorado. Wyoming and other western states, the U.S. Forest Service reversed a plan to close caves, a move decried by caving enthusiasts. Instead, caves with hibernating colonies will be closed during the winter and decontaminated each year.

"White-nose syndrome has arrived in the very core of gray bat habitat and it's like a bomb waiting to go off. Despite this bad news, federal agencies in the West are backtracking on precautionary cave measures," Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

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