BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- A disease that already has killed more than 5.5 million cave-dwelling bats in eastern North America has been detected in a cavern in northeast Alabama, its farthest incursion yet into the South, wildlife officials said Wednesday.
The fungal illness, white-nose syndrome, first was detected in New York state in 2006. Officials say it had spread into Tennessee and was discovered in Russell Case in Jackson County on March 1, marking its first appearance in Alabama.
The disease doesn't pose a threat to humans, livestock or pets. But officials say the bat die-off is expensive because the winged mammals save farmers $3 billion annually by eating insects.
Officials said the disease, known for its tell-tale white tufts on the muzzles of infected bats, kills virtually all the bats in caves once it shows up in the population.
"This disease is likely one of the most significant disease threats to bat populations in Alabama due to its potential to affect multiple bat species and the devastating nature of the affliction," said Keith Hudson, a biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Alabama is home to 15 varieties of bats, including gray and Indiana bats, which are both listed as endangered species
The syndrome is caused by a fungus that causes bats to waken from winter hibernation and die after they fly into the cold air in search of insects. The disease has now been confirmed in a total of 17 states and four Canadian provinces.
The disease is transmitted bat-to-bat, but officials said fungal spores can be inadvertently carried to caves by people on clothing and caving gear.
While northeast Alabama is crisscrossed with caves and is a popular destination for spelunkers, the cave where it was discovered has been closed for about 10 years. It is part of the Russell Cave National Monument, where archaeological sites remain open.
"The National Park Service has been working closely with the state and federal agencies and has implemented protection protocols to try and limit the spread of this deadly disease," said the superintendent of the site, John Bundy.
Russell Cave includes several miles of underground passages, including entrances on private property. Archaeologists say prehistoric people lived in the entrance of Russell Cave for about 10,000 years.