By Zach Howard
HADLEY, Mass (Reuters) - Some species of bats will be wiped out in New England within 15 years by white nose syndrome, a fast-spreading disease steadily trekking westward, experts said on Thursday.
A top predator of mosquitoes, beetles and other pests that hurt agriculture, bats are in steep decline, said Ann Froschauer, an expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, Mass. White nose syndrome has killed more than a million of the bats living in North America.
Loss of bats in North America could cost agriculture at least $3.7 billion per year, according to a study slated for publication in the April 1 issue of Science and released to Reuters on Thursday.
"The disease is sort of outpacing us," Froschauer said.
The syndrome gets its name from a white fungus that settles in tufts on infected bats' muzzles and invades their skin. It causes them to have low body-fat, retreat deeper into cold caves, and exhibit odd behavior, such as flying in daytime and in cold weather, when insects they feed on are not present.
The cause of the disease is a mystery, though a newly-identified fungal pathogen, Geomyces destructans, is suspected.
White nose is mainly spread by bat-to-bat transmission, but humans also can transport fungal spores via shoes, clothes and gear from contaminated sites to new sites.
U.S. officials say people can help slow white nose's spread by staying out of caves and mines that are homes to bats.
Since its discovery in an upstate New York State cave in early 2006, white nose has been confirmed in 15 states and two eastern Canadian provinces.
Fish and Wildlife experts say Oklahoma is the furthest west the fungus itself has been detected, while full-blown white nose syndrome in bats has traveled as far west as Tennessee. This week alone, wildlife officials in Ohio detected that state's first case in an abandoned mine in Wayne National Forest, and it also turned up in New Brunswick, Canada. This year, Indiana and North Carolina also have made their first discoveries of the disease.
"Little brown bats tend to be the ones that are really getting hammered by the disease," said Froschauer, who said the species could become extinct in New England within 15 years.
Other species most acutely affected by white nose are Indiana and Southeast-based Gray bats, which are listed as endangered species in the United States, Froschauer says.
Eleven species out of a total 45 U.S. bat species already are affected by white nose, which is nearly half of the 26 bat species that are cave-hibernating bats. In some caves in the Northeast, 90 to 100 percent of populations have died. About 1,100 bat species exist worldwide.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)