CARLSBAD, N.M.-The half a million bats that call Carlsbad Caverns National Park home could face the threat of the deadly white nose syndrome.
Federal agencies have mobilized in recent weeks to combat a microscopic organism that could potentially kill off thousands of the Mexican free-tailed bats that make the national park famous, the Carlsbad Current Argus reports .
White nose syndrome was found in bat populations in states across the country, with the closest discovery in Oklahoma and Texas.
It's named for a white, fuzzy growth that develops on the nose, ears and wings of infected bats.
"Obviously, we don't want our bat colony to contract (white nose syndrome)," said Doug Neighbor, superintendent of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. "Most populations out east had substantial die off."
The fungal infection grows in the bats' skin tissues, rousing them from hibernation repeatedly, which forces the bats to consume winter fat stores and starve to death before awakening in the spring, according to a report from Bat Conservation International, an Austin, Texas-based organization dedicated to conserving all bat species.
Evidence of white nose syndrome was discovered in New Mexico soil samples and samples of bat dung last spring, but further testing this month determined it was not yet in the state.
White nose syndrome was first discovered in a single New York cave in 2007, and has since killed millions of bats.
The symptoms were found in 33 U.S. states and seven Canadian provinces, moving as far west as Washington state.
If the syndrome makes it to the Carlsbad Caverns, Neighbor said the impact could be devastating to the local bat populations, and negatively impact Carlsbad's tourism industry. Many visitors travel to the national park to watch the renowned bat flights in and out of the cave.
"They're extremely important to the community," he said. "There's only a few places in the U.S. where you can see these kinds of numbers."
The National Park Service teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service to devise strategies to prevent the spread of the disease into New Mexico's public lands, according to an announcement last week by the four agencies.
"As the leading edge of the white-nose syndrome disease front advances, we do not fully know how the fungus will behave in these environments, particularly in the Southwest," said Jeremy Coleman, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's coordinator for the