The bat-killing fungal infection known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) has spread into Tennessee for the first time. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) has confirmed that infected bats were found in Worley's cave in Sullivan County, where they had been hibernating.

Most Tennessee caves were closed to visitors last spring to try to prevent WNS from reaching the state's bats. That effort may have come too late.

WNS has killed hundreds of thousands of bats in the U.S. since it was discovered in New York State just three years ago, including large numbers of endangered Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis). Vermont has lost at least 95 percent of its bats since WNS was first observed within its borders.

Tennessee is not taking the threat lightly. "Bats provide a tremendous public service in terms of pest control," said the TWRA's Richard Kirk in a prepared statement. "If we lose 500,000 bats, we'll lose the benefits from that service and millions of pounds of insects will still be flying around our neighborhoods, agricultural fields and forests."

Meanwhile, attempts to understand and fight WNS are moving forward on multiple fronts. In Pennsylvania biologists DeeAnn Reeder of Bucknell University and Greg Turner from the Pennsylvania Game Commission are experimenting with anti-fungal agents, treating infected bats to see if their survival rates improve. But since WNS may be a symptom, not the actual cause of the bats' deaths, it's too early to tell if the anti-fungal will be effective in reducing mortality rates. "This will help us provide data as to whether fungus is the causative agent," Turner told The Times–Tribune of Scranton. Researchers for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation are trying a similar tactic in the Adirondacks.

Funding to help study WNS has been included in the Obama administration's most recent budget. Congress approved $1.9 million for WNS research last year.*

Image: Bats exhibiting signs of white-nose syndrome. Photo by Al Hicks; New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Via U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

*Erratum (2/25/10): This sentence was edited after publication. It originally stated that the Obama administration had cut funding in its most recent budget. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released a statement confirming that their WNS research budget for the next year has not been cut, as had been reported in various media: "Language in the Service's Budget Justifications to Congress for fiscal year 2011 (beginning October 1, 2010) may give the erroneous impression that the service will no longer fund the WNS investigation after September 30, 2010.... [We] will continue to fund WNS work in FY 2011 with funds appropriated for endangered species recovery."