Alabama farm
© Associated Press/Elizabeth DalzielBats protect Alabama farms from insects.
While the media made a big deal out of honey bees dying last year, bats are quietly suffering a similar fate. And the death of bats is an environmental disaster in the making. Every single bat in the United States may soon be dead. White-nose syndrome (WNS), a mysterious fungus that kills bats wiped out about 90 percent of the bats in Connecticut this past winter and the syndrome is now headed to Alabama and other southern states.

According to a report in the Hartford Courant (Bats Die), officials from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection have found "veritable bat catacombs" in the state's caves. The wildlife inspectors discovered thousands of dead bats stacked up along the ledges of cave walls.

"This is a massive, unprecedented die-off, with significant potential impacts on nature, especially insect control," Jenny Dickson, the biologist who supervises bats in Connecticut told the Courant.

Like birds, bats migrate and most of the hibernating bats in Connecticut travel to New York, Massachusetts and Vermont. In caves in New York, biologists have discovered that WNS has killed just about 100 percent of hibernating bats. About a million bats in the Northeast stats have perished this winter.

Experts note that no bat species is immune to WNS. "We have no idea why (WNS) spreading so rapidly," says Justin Boyles, a graduate student in biology at Indiana State University and author of a study of WNS.

WNS was first discovered in upstate New York during the winter of 2006 when hibernating bats were observed with a mysterious white fungus across their faces and wings. Hundreds of starved bats were dead in and around caves, suggesting they had starved to death while hibernating.

Ecologist Merlin Tuttle told the Courant, "Virginia is right on the border of perhaps the biggest bat hibernation areas in the world - Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky - where there are caves with such large populations of bats we can't even measure how many millions are in there. They spread from this area across vast ranges of the agricultural South." When WNS enters Alabama and other states, the results will be devastating.

Because bats eat so many insects, experts are worried that mosquito populations will grow and lead to the spread of more diseases like West Nile virus (carried by mosquitoes). Bats also eat insects that attack crops. It is estimated, for instance that 100 million bats in central Texas eat 2 million pounds of insects nightly. Without bats, farmers may use more pesticides to protect their crops, an action which may harm the environment even more.