More than five years since the deadly white-nose fungus was first detected in a New York cave where bats hibernate, up to 6.7 million of the animals are estimated to have died in 16 states and Canada, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday.
The estimate, drawn from surveys by wildlife officials mostly in Northeastern states where the disease thrives, confirmed the worst fears of biologists who have been counting dead bats covered in the powdery fungus in mines and caves every winter and worrying whether the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat and the tri-colored bat will survive.
“We’re watching a potential extinction event on the order of what we experienced with bison and passenger pigeons for this group of mammals,” said Mylea Bayless, conservation programs manager for Bat Conservation International in Austin.
“The difference is we may be seeing the regional extinction of multiple species,” Bayless said. “Unlike some of the extinction events or population depletion events we’ve seen in the past, we’re looking at a whole group of animals here, not just one species. We don’t know what that means, but it could be catastrophic.”
Bats are a top nocturnal predator, picking off night-flying insects that feed on agricultural crops and forests.