Texas State University researchers get $500K grant from TPWD to study deadly disease in bats

'Bats are a vital part of our ecosystem'

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SAN ANTONIO – Texas Parks and Wildlife has awarded a significant grant to Texas State University in an effort to better understand the threat of white-nose syndrome in Texas bats.

White-nose syndrome is a disease that has killed millions of bats across Texas and it’s also responsible for the die-off of cave myotis, a small species of bat, earlier in 2020.

TPWD is giving Texas State a $500,000 grant, making it one of the largest grants ever given by the department to study non-game wildlife, officials said.

According to a TPWD press release last year, white-nose syndrome was first detected in Texas in 2017 in six counties in the Panhandle and by 2019 it was detected in 22 sites across 16 counties.

“Bats are a vital part of our ecosystem providing many services such as pollination, seed dispersal and pest control,” said senior ecologist at Bowman Consulting Group Sara Weaver. “Here in Central Texas, bats aid farmers by eating the insects feeding on their crops and are estimated to save cotton farmers $74 per acre in pesticide use. Across the U.S., they contribute billions of dollars in savings in the form of pest control.”

Some states have seen a 90-100% decrease in their bat populations due to white-nose syndrome, according to WhiteNoseSyndrome.org. “White-nose syndrome is considered one of the worst wildlife diseases in modern times in North America.”

“Some bat species in Texas, such as the well-known Mexican free-tailed bat that reside in bridges and caves around Central Texas, are known for their winter migrations. However, some individuals of this species hibernate here in Texas. Thus, it is unknown how susceptible Mexican free-tailed bats are to white-nose syndrome,” said Texas State associate professor Ivan Castro-Arellano.

The world’s largest bat colony is a maternal colony of Mexican free-tailed bats found in Bracken Cave, just 20 minutes outside of San Antonio. Every June, the bats at Bracken Cave give birth to one pup each, bringing the total population up to about 20 million bats.

Researchers with the university are aiming to provide TPWD officials with baseline occupancy, relative abundance and activity pattern estimates of bats across Texas year-round for a minimum of three years.

The study will also identify weather-related and landscape habitat activity patterns for Texas bats in order to help predict the distribution and activity of priority bat species.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than six million bats have died from white-nose syndrome since it was first detected during the winter of 2006-2007,” according to Texas State University officials.

“Infectious diseases are becoming a global problem not only for humans but also for wildlife conservation,” Castro-Arellano said. “The pathogen currently affecting bat populations is likely a consequence of human activities that inadvertently transported the pathogen from Europe to [the] USA, with devastating effects on bats.”

“Moreover, this pathogen can likely affect humans given the ecosystem services that bats provide (e.g., insect pest reduction). Thus, it is imperative to generate baseline data to manage populations of these important species,” said Castro-Arellano.

The Bracken Cave bat colony is listed as a species of greatest concern and their loss could be devastating for the environment and the South Texas ecosystem, said cave director Fran Hutchins, with Bat Conservation International.

Raising awareness and educating the public about the importance of bats is key to their sustainability and survival.

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