ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — A killing disease that's devastating bat populations is now working its way east and south through Georgia.
Wildlife biologists early last year confirmed the presence of white-nose syndrome for the first time in Georgia bats.
That was in far northwest Georgia.
Now biologists with the state Department of Natural Resources, the University of Georgia and the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have found it in northeast Georgia, the DNR announced this month.
A team led by DNR biologist Trina Morris found evidence of the disease on March 4 when they visited the Black Diamond Tunnel in Rabun County. Morris visited the privately owned shaft with other scientists, including Nikki Castleberry of UGA's Georgia Museum of Natural History.
The tunnel shaft is the largest hibernaculum (a place where bats or other animals overwinter) in the state for tiny tri-colored bats.
They found dead bats piled on ledges and floating in the partially flooded shaft's waters. They also saw, clinging to the ceiling, live bats with white fuzz on their snouts - the tell-tale sign of white nose syndrome.
They also found a bat population that seemed to be in steep decline.
Last year, they counted more than 5,500 hibernating bats in the Black Diamond Tunnel, but this month they saw fewer than 3,500.
Extreme cold this winter could account or some of the sharp drop in bat numbers, Morris said, but white-nose is the suspected culprit for most of the deaths.
White-nose kills is through hunger, she said.
The fungus is itchy, like athlete's foot is for people, and the bats wake up to scratch the fungus off. When they wake up, they burn fat, and then they need to go hunt insects, their primary food, she said.
Northeast Georgia isn't the only place where white-nose syndrome has advanced.
White-nose syndrome was also found this year further south in Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Bartow county, further south than it had been seen before, according to DNR scientists.
Biologists believe white-nose syndrome originated in Europe. It showed up in North America in about 2005, probably brought by someone who had visited a European bat cave and didn't clean off their gear. Since its arrival, the disease has killed 6 million or more bats as it moved through Canada and 26 states.
The poorly understood disease has killed up to 90 percent of the bats in some caves, and could actually cause the extinction of some species.
Biologists hope the impact won't be as severe in Georgia because of our milder winters, Morris said.
The disease doesn't directly affect humans, but could indirectly affect agriculture in a big way. Georgia bats eat insects, and bats can eat half their weight or more in insects in a day, Morris said.
Bats that are in people's attics and tree-dwelling bats aren't likely to have white-nose syndrome, which is a problem for cave-dwelling bats that congregate in big numbers.
But if anyone sees bats flying in the daytime near a cave, Morris asks that they contact DNR at www.gawildlife.org/wns. Daytime flying is a possible sign of white-nose syndrome, she said.
And anyone who visits caves should make sure to clean their gear thoroughly between visits to prevent transmission of the disease, Morris said.