Harrisburg, Virginia - Although they are largely misunderstood, bats are considered among the most beneficial animals in the United States.

So the recent discovery of a rapidly spreading fatal disease called White-Nose Syndrome in Virginia bats, possibly including those in Endless Caverns near New Market, has biologists and elected officials scrambling to save the small-winged mammals.

The syndrome takes its name from the ring of white fungus that often appears on infected bats' snouts and other body parts. Bats infected with the disease also typically have low body fat, dehydration and demonstrate abnormal behavior.

Scientists don't know what's causing the disease that has wiped out hundreds of thousands of bats since first showing up in the northeast about three years ago. They also don't know how the disease is spread or how to stop it from infecting more bats, which, in most cases, are disease resilient.

The country's first cases of WNS were identified in several caves near Albany, New York, in 2006. The disease has since spread to neighboring states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Vermont and West Virginia, wiping out hundreds of thousands of bats in the region.

In Virginia, the first cases of WNS were confirmed earlier this year in Breathing Cave in Bath County and Clover Hollow Cave in Giles County.

A couple of weeks ago, biologists discovered more bats with symptoms of the disease in a cave in Bland County, on a building in Cumberland County and in Endless Caverns, a show cave in Rockingham County.

Biologists sent samples of those bats to a national testing facility, but the results are not back yet.

No. 1 Predator Of Pests

While many people think the mysterious deaths of thousands of bats may not affect them, the animals in fact play a vital role in the environment and are a key ally in the fight against crops-eating pests, according to Rick Reynolds, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Bats are the main predator of night-flying insects, with one bat eating anywhere from 600 to 1,000 mosquitoes and other insects in just one hour, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to eating many backyard pests, bats are chief predators of many insects that destroy crops, including cucumber beetles, cotton bollworms and June bugs, Reynolds said.

"All of these are pests that cause a lot of damage to agricultural crops," said Reynolds, who is based in of the department's Verona office. "A lot of our bats are out there feeding over agricultural fields."

If white-nose syndrome wipes out large numbers of the state's bats, as biologists expect it will, farmers likely will have to resort to using more chemicals to control pests, a measure that could prove quite costly.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, 25 senators and congressmen, including Virginia Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner, outlined the role bats play in pest control.

"A single bat can easily eat more than 3,000 insects in a night and an entire colony will consume hundreds of millions of these crop-destroying and disease-carrying pest every year," the letter states. "Bats reduce the need for pesticides, which cost farmers billions of dollars every year and are harmful to human health."

In addition to being a primary predator of insects, bats have a highly evolved sense of hearing called echolocation, which involves sending out sounds that bounce off of objects and emit back to the bats.

From those sounds, bats can determine the size of an object, how far away it is, its texture and how fast they are traveling, all in a split second, according to Defenders of Wildlife.

By studying bats' hearing capabilities, scientists have developed technologies such as echolocation sonar and aircraft radar as well as navigation aids for the blind, Reynolds said.

Scientists also have made advancements in artificial insemination by studying reproduction in bats, some of which demonstrate delayed fertilization or delayed implantation.

Studying "what these animals do and how they operate has given us insight into other areas," Reynolds said. "They're unique animals."

So far, WNS has been found in three species of bats in Virginia, including the Little Brown, Northern Long-Eared and Eastern Pipistrelle, and will likely spread to other species soon, Reynolds said.

"The way this thing is progressing, if it continues at the rate that it's going, we're probably going to lose species of bats here in the East," he said. "We'll be talking about millions of bats once it starts getting into the southern states."

In an effort to ward off the spread of the disease, 11 states, including Virginia, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have committed $1.37 million to research WNS, according to a release from the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Also, in their letter to Salazar, the region's senators and congressmen have asked that his department provide funding for federal and state wildlife agencies to address the issue.

"As the bats emerge from their hibernation caves, it is vital that researchers have the resources in place to conduct tests this summer," the letter states. "We must do everything we can to stop the spread of WNS or it will continue to spread across the country, decimating our bat populations."