WASHINGTON — A mysterious disease that's killing tens of thousands of bats in the Northeast is spreading so fast that it could reach California within five years, biologists and officials of the Agriculture and Interior departments told lawmakers Thursday.
"Never in my wildest imagination would I have dreamed of anything that could pose this serious a threat to America's bats," Merlin Tuttle, a biologist with Bat Conservation International who's studied the creatures for 50 years, told two House of Representatives subcommittees.
He called the bat-killing disease, which could threaten eight species with extinction, "the most serious threat to American wildlife in the past century."
According to the Agriculture Department, bats eat pests that otherwise would cost farmers up to $1 billion a year in damages.
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The disease, called "white-nose syndrome," makes bats awaken from hibernation prematurely and leave their caves. Freezing, unable to find insects to eat, they fall from the sky and die.
About 95 percent of infected bats perish, and the disease appears to spread from bat to bat, infecting entire caves, officials said. The main clue to their deaths is fungus-encrusted noses and wings. Whether the fungus causes their deaths or is merely a symptom of a failing immune symptom is unknown.
To find out, researchers want help from two Natural Resources subcommittees, whose members sounded sympathetic, the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife.
First discovered in 2006 in a cave outside Albany, N.Y., the disease has spread to Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and possibly Canada.
The white fungus appears to thrive in colder caves, so its spread could peter out as it moves farther south and west. However, scientists found bats with white-nose syndrome in southern Virginia this March, and the temperature at which the fungus will die is unknown.
A similar fungus has been found in caves in Europe since the 1980s, the biologists said, but doesn't kill the bats there. European bats, which occasionally cross the Atlantic on air currents, could have introduced the fungus to American bats with different immunities, biologists said. Or an unknown disease could be wreaking havoc with their immune systems, making them vulnerable to a fungus they previously could defend against.
The Department of the Interior so far has spent $5 million studying white-nose syndrome, and it's closed 2,000 caves, said Marvin Moriarty, the Northeast regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"This is the greatest challenge to bat conservation we have ever faced," he said. State and local authorities, as well as private organizations, also have closed caves and pledged money.
Thomas Kunz, a biology professor at Boston University, told lawmakers it would take $10 million to $17 million over five years to combat the disease, but said that number didn't take into account any spreading of the syndrome.