NASHVILLE, Tenn.—A mysterious fungus that has killed more than 1 million bats in the United States has spread to Tennessee, and state officials worry it could spread rapidly, wiping out nature's best defense against insects.
Officials announced this week that Tennessee had its first cases of white-nose syndrome when two tri-colored bats hibernating in a cave in Sullivan County tested positive for the fungus.
Biologists are bracing for Tennessee to be hit hard by the fast-spreading fungus because the state has so may caves. In all, there are more than 9,600 caves throughout the Volunteer State, some of them hosting hibernating bat colonies of more than 100,000.
Bats play a vital role in the environment, with some of the creatures eating up to 1,200 mosquitoes per hour.
"If we lose these guys, we're going to end up with a lot more insects flying around destroying agricultural crops and forest trees and defoliating them," Thomas Kunz, professor of biology and director of the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University, told the Tennessean.
An infestation of insects could also lead to the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile virus.Scientists have yet to figure out a way to stop the fungus.
The mysterious disease first showed up in caves and mines in New York in 2006. The fungus quickly spread to other states and was found in Virginia last year.
"We were hopeful it would maybe pass us by," said Cory Holliday, cave and karst manager for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee.
Government officials closed caves on all public lands in an effort to keep the fungus out.
The bats that tested positive here were found just over the Virginia-Tennessee state line.
The syndrome got its name because infected bats commonly have a dusting of white powdery-looking fungus on their muzzles, ears and wings.
The fungus causes bats to lose weight. The bats will leave hibernation early in search of food, but they end up starving to death since the insects they eat are normally not available then.
There is no evidence that white-nose syndrome hurts humans. Scientists, however, worry that humans may be hurting the bats by picking up contaminants and carrying them from one cave to another.
That's why officials are urging people to stay out of caves.
"Temporarily staying out of caves and mines is the one thing we can do right now to slow the transmission of white-nose Syndrome," Holliday said.