June 17, 2014

Will a bat-killing fungus make it to Texas?

Now that a deadly bat-killing fungus has been found in Mississippi, how long before it arrives in Texas?

A deadly fungus that has killed millions of bats is continuing to march across the United States and has now been found in the Deep South.

Last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks said the fungus that causes White-nose Syndrome had been found in Mississippi.

What it means for Texas, and other states in the western U.S., is uncertain. The broad ecological impact could stem from the millions of pounds of insects that would go uneaten if the bat population is greatly reduced, having a negative impact on agriculture.

White-nose Syndrome, which was first detected in New York in 2007, has now been found in 25 states, including Arkansas and Missouri, along with five Canadian provinces. The closest confirmed case of White-Nose Syndrome to Texas is now in north-central Arkansas.

“Obviously it is something we should concerned about,” said Katie Gillies, a conservation biologist with the Austin-based Bat Conservation International. “We are monitoring sites in the Texas Panhandle for Texas Parks and Wildlife and we will continue to monitor them. The good news is it hasn’t arrived yet.”

Caves in in Childress, Cottle, and Hardeman counties were swabbed for the fungus and individual bats were tested. Bats that were sampled included cave myotis, Townsend’s big-eared bats, tri-colored bats, and big brown bats. That is the one part of the state where there are hibernating bats and it is cold enough for the conditions to take place.

“Texas has potential to be a bridge for White-nose to reach the west,” Jonah Evans, a Texas Parks and Wildlife mammalogist. “White-nose only effects hibernating bats, as far as we know, but those migratory bats could still be a vector for getting it into other parts of the country and perhaps Mexico and Central America.”

In the northeastern U.S. and Canada, White-nose Syndrome has killed more than 5.7 million bats. Some areas have seen 90 to 100 percent of bats die, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The syndrome got its name from the white fungus that appears on a bat’s muzzle and elsewhere on its body.

“As WNS moves south and west, we are particularly interested in monitoring the progression of the disease, especially as new species and regions are exposed," said Jeremy Coleman, national WNS coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a press release.

If the fungus makes it to Texas, it is not clear if it will have the same devastating effects as in the Northeast. More than half of the 47 bat species in the U.S. hibernate to survive the winter but the majority in Texas, including Mexican free-tailed bats, are migratory.

“We don’t know what the impacts would be but it will probably show up in Texas eventually,” Gillies said. “It has to be a hibernating species to get a hold on them. It invades and destroys tissues during hibernation. Additionally, immune systems are suppressed during hibernation.”

The fungus isn’t believed to impact bats who migrate but there are still questions about what will happen if it makes it to the Panhandle — or if bats could carry it to other parts of the country..

“We do have some bats that hibernate in the Panhandle and some that don’t,” Gillies said.

White-nose Syndrome doesn’t effect humans but they can play a role in its its spread. Those who enter caves can unwittingly carry the fungus from one cave to another.

Cavers should maintain gear restriction and decontamination procedures. US Fish and Wildlife officials say no clothing or equipment that has been worn in a cave in eastern North America should be used in caves that located in parts of the U.S. not effected by White-Nose Syndrome.

Much like boaters are believed to have contributed to the spread of zebra mussels, an invasive species that is now found in Texas lakes, cavers could bring it to Texas.

“It is an invasive species,” Gillies said. “It is a bat disease caused by an invasive species. We should shift away from worrying about bat disease to managing it as an invasive species that impacts our bat population.”

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