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BOSTON (AP) — The federal government says biologists estimate between 5.7 million and 6.7 million bats have died in a mysterious epidemic that is spreading across North America, including Massachusetts.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that biologists expect the white-nose syndrome to continue to escalate.

The infection is caused by a fungus that prompts bats to wake from their winter hibernation and die when they fly into the frigid, insect-less winter landscape.

It was first detected in New York’s Adirondack Mountains in 2006 and since then it has been spreading across North America, including Massachusetts.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe says the startling mortality information illustrates the severity of the threat that white-nose syndrome poses for bats, who provide tremendous value to the U.S. economy as natural pest control for American farms, forests and people.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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