Correction: Sick Bats story

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — In a story April 8 about a toxic fungus in bats, The Associated Press reported erroneously that Fern Cave near Huntsville is the first place in Alabama where scientists found the fungus. They discovered it last year in a Jackson County cave in northeastern Alabama.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Ala. Fern Cave bats latest to face deadly fungus

Toxic white-nose syndrome hits bats at Fern Cave in Alabama

By KATHY WINGARD

Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Fern Cave has become the latest battleground in an international effort against the spread of a toxic fungus in bats that could result in wide economic impact, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced Monday.

The fungus — known as white-nose syndrome — already is affecting caves in Georgia and Tennessee, and this is the second report of its spread to Alabama. The first case was reported last year in Russell Cave in Jackson County.

Fern Cave is a satellite refuge of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and home to the world's largest wintering colony of bats.

As the bats hibernate, the deadly white fluff grows around their muzzles and on their wings. Bats contract the illness from other bats, and humans are not at risk.

Officials called the latest cases alarming and said they could be catastrophic.

"With this one cave containing more than a third of the world's gray bats, all the alarm bells should be going off," said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "White-nose syndrome is now threatening the very survival of the gray bat and several other species."

In some infected caves, all the bats have died from white-nose syndrome.

Bats are an essential insect control tool for farmers. Researchers have estimated the economic value of bug-eating bats to agriculture at $33 billion annually or more. Bat guano is the food for many species of animals living near them.

Matteson noted that bats are "supremely important for farming, for our food security. They eat thousands of tons of insects, including crop pests, every year."

In Fern Cave, two species of bats have the white fungus. The spores are able to attach to humans and their clothing, so the site has been closed to recreational cavers so they won't transmit the fungus to new areas, according to wildlife biologist Bill Gates at Wheeler Refuge.

The fungus occurs naturally in soil. To decontaminate a cave, most living organisms inside would be exterminated during the process, said Ann Froschauer of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Her agency is leading a cooperative effort among federal and state agencies, tribes, researchers, universities and other non-government organizations to understand and manage the spread of the syndrome.

The epidemic has killed nearly 7 million bats in 22 eastern states and five Canadian provinces since 2006, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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