SAN MARCOS, Texas - A team at Texas State University has been tapped by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to research white-nose syndrome in Texas bats.
The team has received a $500,000 grant to conduct an extensive acoustic survey of bats in order to prepare a response to the deadly syndrome devastating bat populations across North America. The university says this grant is among the largest TPWD has made to study non-game wildlife.
“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," associate professor and team member Ivan Castro-Arellano said, who added that as the syndrome spreads across Texas, many species could be affected.
The university says the team will provide TPWD 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 local and landscape habitat and weather-related predictors to enable the team to create models to predict distribution and activity of priority bat species based on influential local and landscape variables.
This will guide the agency as it prioritizes management and conservation strategies.
"Bats are a vital part of our ecosystem providing many services such as pollination, seed dispersal and pest control," senior ecologist Sara Weaver said. "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."
White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease responsible for die-offs in several bat species across North America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than six million bats have died since the disease was first detected during the winter of 2006-2007. Since then, significant declines in many bat species across the nation have been documented through summer bat surveys and hibernation counts.
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), was detected in hibernating bats in Texas in early 2017.
"Infectious diseases are becoming a global problem not only for humans but also for wildlife conservation. The pathogen currently affecting bat populations is likely a consequence of human activities that inadvertently transported the pathogen from Europe to USA, with devastating effects on bats," Castro-Arellano said. "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."
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TPWD implemented a White-nose Syndrome Action Plan in February 2017. The first phase is to determine Texas bat population parameters before exposure with the rationale of gathering population data to better understand what would happen should the disease spread to Texas.
However, the first die-offs in the state were documented in early 2020, adding urgency to the need to gather data to quantify the population-level effects.