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News Room

Volume 36, Issue 2, 2017

Winter hunt for White-nose

Recent discoveries in Texas indicate deadly fungus continues to spread


Bat flying in the sky
Little brown bat with WNS
Courtesy of Michael Schirmacher / Bat Conservation International

A team of BCI biologists have been on a hunt for the past six years. Each winter, before the blue bonnets begin to flower along the highways of Texas, the team delved underground to survey the bat populations in the caves of the Texas panhandle. They are on the hunt for signs of the deadly disease, White-nose Syndrome.

Unlike most hunts, this was one they hoped they would never conclude. Every year they came back with negative results—and a sigh of relief. But this year was different. One by one, samples came back positive. From one county, two, three.

Ultimately, the fungus that causes White-nose Syndrome, Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), was detected across six Texas counties on three species of hibernating bats: the cave myotis, Townsend’s big-eared bat and the tri-colored bat. This is the first discovery of Pd on the cave myotis and the first detection of the fungus on western populations of Townsend’s big-eared bats—two bat species with distributions extending further into the west.

The samples were collected in January and February by BCI and Texas A&M University (TAMU) biologists, as part of a larger national surveillance study led by University of California, Santa Cruz.

“We’ve been looking for it for years, hoping to never find it, unfortunately now we have,” explains Katie Gillies, BCI’s past Director of Imperiled Species.

Bat flying in the sky
Swabbing a bat to be tested for WNS in the Texas Panhandle
Courtesy of Katie Gillies / Bat Conservation International

“At this early stage of detection, we have not observed any visible signs of the disease on any bats in the state, such as white fungal growth on the nose and wings. Detecting the fungus when it first arrives gives us a chance to take action and try to minimize the impacts from White-nose Syndrome on our Texas bats.”

They say that “everything is bigger in Texas,” and that certainly holds true to the state’s diverse fauna. Texas, with 32 bat species, has the greatest diversity of bat species in the country. The state is also home to the famous roosts of Mexican free-tailed bats at the Ann W. Richards Congress Ave. Bridge in Austin and Bracken Cave near San Antonio (one of the largest bat colonies in the world). However, Mexican free-tailed bats do not hibernate all winter and may not be highly susceptible to the disease.

“While we are cautiously optimistic that Mexican free-tailed bats will not be heavily impacted by the disease, we do have serious concerns for hibernating species, such as the cave myotis that often share their roosts,” says Winifred Frick, BCI Senior Director of Conservation Science.

“We have seen entire colonies wiped out once the disease gets established in a location. White-nose Syndrome seems to have a wide range of impacts on different species, and we are not sure how devastating it may be to western bats.”

Texas represents the eastern edge of cave myotis’ population range, with the species being found throughout southwestern U.S. and into Mexico.

Bat flying in the sky
A colony of Cave myotis
Courtesy of Katie Gillies / Bat Conservation International

The discovery of the fungus in Texas speaks to a national concern. Biologists are worried that the spread of Pd into western states will be exacerbated, as this and other western species are exposed.

Understanding the patterns of fungal spread and minimizing human impacts is key to combating the disease.

“We will be expanding our targeted surveillance to get a better understanding of the distribution of the fungus,” explains Gillies. “We will also be reaching out to landowners and the community to help protect bat roosts and emphasize decontamination to reduce the likelihood of an accidental spread of the fungus to a new location.”

While good news in the fight against White-nose Syndrome may seem scarce, it does not stop BCI from working on this disease.

“Investing in research and fostering innovative partnerships is more important than ever. We work with some amazing partners, federal and state wildlife agencies alike as well as other non-profits and researchers, in a coordinated response to this disease,” says Mike Daulton, Executive Director of BCI.

“The communication and partnerships that have resulted from our efforts have not only been effective in furthering our understanding of this disease and finding new pathways or tools to help bats survive; it has also created a successful framework that can be replicated for future diseases, as we know White-nose Syndrome is not the last wildlife disease we will have to tackle.”

 

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