Wildlife officials: Fungus that can be deadly to bats found in 7 Oklahoma counties

This photo taken on December 22, 2015 shows bats flying near the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, home to over 500 thousand bats during winter. Myanmar has one of the world's richest and most diverse endowments of wildlife, but campaigners fear the country's natural habitats are coming under threat as it begins to develop after years of isolation under military rule. AFP PHOTO / Ye Aung THU / AFP / Ye Aung Thu (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)

DELAWARE COUNTY, Okla. – Wildlife officials say a fungus that can be deadly to bats has been found in seven Oklahoma counties.

Last year, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that a tricolored bat in Delaware County tested positive for white-nose syndrome.

White-nose syndrome was first detected in New York in the winter of 2006. Since then, the disease has spread west and resulted in the deaths of millions of bats.

“It’s troubling that white-nose syndrome continues to push west and threatens the Ozark Plateau, a stronghold for bat conservation,” said National White-nose Syndrome Coordinator Jeremy Coleman, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We are focused on finding solutions and helping bats survive. We’re committed to working with Oklahoma and other partners across the country to closely monitor bats and fight this devastating disease.”

Experts say white-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus, which grows on hibernating bats’ muzzles and wings. The fungus irritates them, causing them to wake at a time when insects are scarce. Since the bats cannot eat and are using stored energy, they often can’t survive the winter.

Bats can eat up to 3,000 insects, including mosquitoes and other pests, in a single night.

“Both bats and their cave environments are incredibly sensitive,” Melynda Hickman, wildlife diversity biologist for the Oklahoma Wildlife Department. “We do know people can unknowingly spread the fungus if they do not follow proper decontamination procedures. A great way to help prevent the spread of the fungus is to avoid entering caves unnecessarily.”

Officials say the fungus has been found in Adair, Cherokee, Delaware, LeFlore, Ottawa, Sequoyah and Woodward counties.

Investigators say the fungus was visible on individual bats from four species, including the endangered Indiana bat and threatened northern long-eared bat. Based on clinical signs and detection of the fungus, LeFlore County is now classified as “white-nose syndrome suspect.”

Officials say more than 90 percent of the state’s caves are owned privately, so it is up to the landowner to help prevent the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus.

Wildlife biologists recommend limiting access to public and private caves, and visitors must follow the decontamination procedures.