ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Scientists studying white nose syndrome in bats estimate the fungal ailment has killed at least 5.7 million bats in 16 states and Canada, providing alarming new numbers about the scope of its decimation.

White nose is caused by a fungus that prompts bats to wake from their winter hibernation and die after they fly into the cold air in a doomed search for insects. First detected in a cave west of Albany in 2006, white nose has spread to 16 states from the Northeast to the South and as far west as Kentucky. It also has been detected in four Canadian provinces.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday released the estimate based on cave counts, extrapolations and other methodologies. The agency’s national white nose coordinator, Jeremy Coleman, said the estimate was based on fatalities through last winter and was conservative.

“This startling new information illustrates the severity of the threat that white nose syndrome poses for bats, as well as the scope of the problem facing our nation. Bats provide tremendous value to the U.S. economy as natural pest control for American farms and forests every year, while playing an essential role in helping to control insects that can spread disease to people,” said agency director Dan Ashe.

Up to 99 percent of bats in some caves struck by white nose have died. Biologists struggling to find ways to fight the fungus have found at least a sliver of hope in the discovery that isolated colonies of little brown bats in the Northeast are surviving and healthy.

Still, wildlife advocates said the new estimate is “frighteningly huge” and underscores the need to work fast to check the spread of white nose.

“Today’s new mortality estimates are a wake-up call that we need to do more, and fast,” said Mollie Matteson with the Center for Biological Diversity.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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