AUSTIN, Texas - The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says it is monitoring the progression of white-nose syndrome amongst Texas bats and is asking for the public’s help to understand how WNS is affecting vulnerable bat populations.
TPWD says that last winter, WNS was detected in bats in 18 counties in Central Texas and the disease has only continued to spread.
"Last year, we received reports of bats dying or acting strange from around the state," said TPWD bat biologist Nathan Fuller. "Unfortunately, we expect the same thing to happen this winter and we are asking Texans to be on the lookout for distressed bats. Texas is a big state and we can monitor bats much more effectively with more eyes out there looking for bats."
TPWD says that WNS is a fungal disease that affects hibernating bats during the winter and presents as a white, fungal growth on the ears, nose and wings. Researchers believe that Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes the disease, was inadvertently introduced to North America from Europe sometime in the mid-2000s.
Fuller says that winter is a dangerous time for bats as, after hibernating for a few months, bats with WNS start to run out of fat in January or February. "Once this happens, bats often leave their roosts in search of food or as an attempt to escape the disease and unfortunately, the animals usually don’t survive," he said. "However, if we know where bats are in the most trouble, we can enact measures to protect the survivors and give them a chance to recover."
The pathogen that causes WNS is thought to be spread by bats through contact with other bats or contact with contaminated surfaces. The fungus grows optimally in low temperatures and as a result, remains in bat hibernation sites long after they have left their roosts in the spring, says TPWD.
Since the first observation of WNS in upstate New York in 2006, the disease has spread throughout North America. Wildlife experts believe that millions of bats have succumbed to the disease, but the actual number is unknown because of the difficulties with monitoring bat populations, says TPWD. The disease is not a risk to humans.
Bats are a critical part of the Texas ecosystem, with more than 30 species of bats calling the state home. "Bats provide billions of dollars in pest control services by eating insects that damage crops," Fuller said. "Without bats, food costs could increase. They are also sensitive to environmental contaminants and other damage and so they can act as indicators of ecosystem health and function."
TPWD is asking the public to email in reports of dead bats they find, and include a general location and, if possible, a photograph. Biologists warn that people should not handle live bats or bat carcasses with bare hands.