FRANKLIN, W.Va., April 3, 2009 -- A mysterious fungus is killing off thousands of bats around the country. Scientists are calling it white-nose syndrome, because of the distinctive white smudges on the noses and wings of infected bats.
White-nose itself doesn't kill bats, but it disturbs their sleep so that they end their hibernation early. During the winter there are no insects to eat, so the bats literally starve to death.
Bats may be one of Mother Nature's least cuddly creatures, but they are ecologically important, keeping mosquitos and insects that attack crops in check.
Researchers say the syndrome has killed upward of half a million bats from New England to Virginia.
"If current trends continue, we will be losing millions of bats in the next couple years," said Al Hicks, a wildlife biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
In some of the worst-hit areas, the mortality rate is 90 percent. Scientists are even using the word "extinction."
White-nose first was reported in Albany, N.Y., three years ago. The syndrome has spread quickly through the Northeast and down to Virginia and West Virginia.
Craig Stihler, a biologist from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, recently investigated a bat cave in Franklin, W.Va., deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, to see if white-nose had hit there.
"It's a real mystery. Nobody knows where it came from. This fungus just appeared. It's unprecedented. Nobody's ever seen die-out from bats like this before," Stihler said.
To Stihler's relief, the bats in the cave he studied aren't infected -- for now.
"All reason tells me that it's just a matter of time," Stihler said. "But maybe something's different in this cave."
Scientists hope they can find answers before it's too late.
Researchers Justin Boyles and Craig Willis want to test if small heated boxes placed in hibernation caves could help the bats survive the winter.
The researchers say the heated boxes wouldn't cure white-nose syndrome but could be a "sort of stopgap measure," Willis told the Associated Press.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.