As scientists approached Hamilton Cave to check on the bats inside, they found the body of one wedged in a crack outside the cave's mouth. The bat's nose was white, as if the thumb-sized animal had poked its gargoyle face into flour. "The first white-nose victim at Hamilton Cave," geologist Wil Orndorff said somberly. "Ever," added colleague Chris Hobson, a zoologist. That white gunk was a fungus believed to cause a torturous disease in bats called white-nose syndrome. In 2009, when scientists last checked Hamilton Cave in far Southwest Virginia, all the bats looked fine. But the mysterious fungus, new to science when it appeared in New York in 2006, is spreading quickly. White-nose has killed more than 1 million bats from New Hampshire to Tennessee, including thousands in Virginia. At some Northeast caves, it has wiped out more than 90 percent of the bats, leaving behind little brown bones like pine needles. "This is like the Great Plague for bats," said Orndorff, who works with Hobson for the state Natural Heritage Program, a conservation office. The disease has caused "the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in recorded history" and could make entire species of bats go extinct, experts said in a 2009 statement. Scientists are comparing this onslaught to the devastation of the buffalo, the passenger pigeon and the American chestnut tree. And all the bats want to do is eat the mosquitoes that make us miserable and the bugs that damage our crops and gardens.