The bat epidemic known as white-nose syndrome has reached North Alabama and the home of the world's largest wintering colony of endangered gray bats, as well as a million endangered Indiana bats.
Announcing the discovery of the fungal disease in Fern Cave on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Ala., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials called the latest development "extremely alarming" and possibly "catastrophic."
"Fern Cave is undoubtedly the single most significant hibernaculum for the [gray bat] species," said Paul Mc-Kenzie, endangered species coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Although mass mortality of gray bats has not yet been confirmed from any ... infected caves in which the species hibernates, the documentation of the disease [in gray bat DNA] from Fern Cave is extremely alarming and could be catastrophic."
Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit conservation organization, said Fern Cave represents a third of the world's gray bat population.
"With this one cave containing more than a third of the world's gray bats, all the alarm bells should be going off," Matteson said.
The disease already has killed nearly 7 million bats in 22 Eastern states and five Canadian provinces since 2006. It recently was identified in Dade and Walker counties in Georgia.
Matteson and McKenzie said the gray bats have not yet shown symptoms of the devastating disease, though a number of other bat species found there have.
Matteson said it is too soon to consider gray bats, federally listed as endangered in 1976, in the clear. She said the Indiana bat population has declined by more than 70 percent.
Another species, tricolored bats, has declined by more than 95 percent, and they have been seen in the cave with the telltale fuzzy white muzzle characteristic of the disease, Matteson said.
The disease and its affects have prompted the Center for Biological Diversity to petition for Endangered Species Act protection for three other species: eastern small-footed bats, northern long-eared bats and little brown bats.
Scientists have said bats are very important for farming and food security, as they eat thousands of tons of insects, including crop pests, every year.
Researchers have estimated the economic value of bug-eating bats to American agriculture at $22 billion and possibly as much as $53 billion annually.
Experts have said the fungal pathogen that causes white-nose most likely was introduced to the United States by a cave visitor from Europe, where the fungus is found on bats but doesn't seem to hurt them.
Federal land managers have closed caves in limited areas, such as national parks.
Matteson urges that those closures be continued.
"We need to find a cure, but until we do, we need to stay out of caves," she said.