- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

CLAYTON, Ga. (AP) - Black Diamond Tunnel sits just outside the city of Clayton in the northeast corner of Georgia.

In the mid-1800s, the tunnel was meant to be part of a train passageway connecting South Carolina to Ohio. After the breakout of the Civil War, construction stopped and never resumed.

Today, the man-made tunnel is the state’s largest known winter shelter for some of Georgia’s 16 bat species. It’s also the latest site in the state to fall victim to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that’s killed more than 6 million bats in the eastern half of the U.S. since it arrived from Europe in 2006.

Almost immediately upon pushing off into the flooded tunnel in a small Jon boat, Katrina Morris, a bat specialist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, points to dead bats floating in the chilly, rippling water.

“Looks like a dead bat floating in the water, or maybe two. And that guy may not be alive. It’s hard to tell, but they get a lot of fungus growing on them,” Morris says, pointing to a more recent victim of the fungal disease. She keeps counting.

“I think that’s two dead bats,” Morris says. “When it was healthy there were over 5,000 bats in here, and this year during peak, we got 3,500.”

The tunnel is primarily home to tri-colored bats, one of eight bat species in Georgia affected by white-nose syndrome.

Deeper into the pitch-black tunnel, more bats dot the walls - more than a thousand. Below, a couple dozen dead bats float alongside the boat.

Near the tunnel’s end, Morris points out an infected bat, a male no bigger than a golf ball that’s just starting to wake up from hibernation. She pulls it off the wall to high-pitch shrieks.

“So you can see the angle and the fuzz growing up over his nose close to the eyes, on the ears, and on the forearm and the wing,” Morris says, describing the fungus that’s spreading over the bat. “It will grow on their feet and their tale. And it looks like they’re covered in a coating of white powder.”

Regina Bleckley, who owns the land on which the tunnel sits, says she knew something was wrong when a bat flew out in the middle of winter. She immediately called Morris.

“We came up here to clean it up, and here come a bat out, but it could barely go,” Bleckley says. “I knew right then. I went and called her. I knew right then they were sick.”

Bleckley was right.

As the bats hibernate, the fungus grows on their skin and fur. The fungus is itchy, so the bats wake up in the middle of winter when they’re supposed to be sleeping. Now awake, they leave the cave in search of food that doesn’t exist or fly around until they die.

“It meant something to this family,” says Bleckley. Her family ties to the land go back to 1919. She’s devastated the bats are dying on her watch.

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