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A mysterious ailment is decimating bat colonies in the northeast, and it's spreading far faster than scientists once believed. White-nose syndrome has been confirmed for the first time this winter in New Hampshire and West Virginia, and suspected sites are being investigated in Virginia. Brian Mann filed this update as part of NPR's local news initiative.

BRIAN MANN: Listen closely and you can hear the flutter of black bat wings against the white snow.

(Soundbite of bat wings fluttering)

MANN: In 2007, biologist Al Hicks with New York's Conservation Department first discovered thousands of dead and dying bats. Their faces dusted with a white fungus. For reasons still not clearly understood, infected bats are leaving hibernation caves early, a kind of suicide.

Mr. SCOTT DARLING (Biologist, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department): It is cold for us, and for an animal that's built to fly in the midsummer, it's got to be excruciatingly cold.

MANN: It's Scott Darling, a biologist with Vermont's Fish and Wildlife Department says tens of thousands of bats have already died in this cave on the oldest mountain in southern Vermont.

Mr. DARLING: We have big respirators with us if you really feel somewhat nauseous down there. Okay.

MANN: He leads the way down into darkness. There's a sour sickening smell. Carcasses are piled everywhere. Mounds of tiny decaying bodies, carpets of bodies over the floor and even frozen into icicles. As the scientists fold carcasses in the plastic bags, they're clearly shaken. Darling whispers to avoid disturbing the animals that are still alive.

Mr. DARLING: This is just far more than I expected in here. There's way more, so many more dead bats here now than there were last year. And we still have another month and a half to go.

MANN: Six weeks before it's warm enough for the bats to survive and find food outside. Hicks and Darling say 80 to 90 percent of the bats in the hardest hit caves are already dead. And new caves are being identified so fast that researches are struggling to keep track of contaminated sites.

Ms. SUSI VON OETTINGEN (Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): Not only are we hitting new maps every week, but two weeks ago, we got three maps in one day.

MANN: Susi Von Oettingen is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She says the disease was confirmed in West Virginia last month, home to some of the country's rarest and most diverse bat populations. Scientists have begun talking about possible remedies, von Oettingen says, but only out of desperation.

Ms. VON OETTINGEN: We do have ideas. We have pie-in-the-sky ideas. Is there, you know, an organic fungicide that we could apply to small sites? I mean, we are trying to be creative.

MANN: The clock is ticking here, am I right?

Ms. VON OETTINGEN: Yes. Yes. You know, if we had the ability to run small experiments right away that may be totally harebrained, I would say go for it, because we just can't run out of time.

MANN: But part of the research effort has now shifted to collecting tissue samples, not to find a cure, but to create a record of vanishing colonies. Carcasses gathered on the oldest mountain are being shipped to a new archive created by Nancy Simmons at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Ms. NANCY SIMMONS (American Museum of Natural History, New York City): We can look at these collections as documenting, you know, what used to be and what simply isn't there anymore.

MANN: Until now, this disease had been limited to the northeast, but scientist say the spread of white-nose into West Virginia and the discovery of suspected sites this week in neighboring Virginia means the fungus could ravage cave-dwelling bats across the U.S. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, half of the bat species in the country are at risk and could be pushed to extinction.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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