BCI scientists survey Texas caves for White-nose Syndrome-causing fungus.

03.17.22
Luz de Wit passes a test swab to Melissa Moreno. Photo by Rachel Harper.
A tricolored bat sits in a gloved hand after receiving a gentle swab testing for Pseudogymoascus destructans. Photo by Rachel Harper.

Every spring for the past 12 years, Bat Conservation International (BCI) scientists have partnered with Texas Parks and Wildlife to survey Texas caves for Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), which is the fungus that causes White-nose Syndrome. This year, in late February and early March, a team of BCI researchers traveled to Texas’s Hill Country to swab bats and cave substrate to see if they are harboring the fungus.

The fungus was first found in Texas in 2017, and the disease it causes, White-nose Syndrome, was first observed in the state in 2019. The condition causes bats to rouse from hibernation and expend their stored energy when food is scarce. Many infected bats do not survive.

Christina Tello observes a tricolored bat hanging from a cave ceiling. Photo by Rachel Harper.

“The bats are spreading it throughout the summer and winter months so it’s progressively moved from the northern part of Texas into the Texas Hill Country, from roost to roost, cave to cave,” says Fran Hutchins, who is Director of BCI’s Bracken Cave Preserve near San Antonio. Bracken Cave is home to the world’s largest maternal colony of bats. Each summer, around 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) roost in the cave, highlighting the importance of vigilant surveillance efforts.

Before entering each cave to collect samples, team members don specially decontaminated coveralls, boots, helmets, gloves, and equipment to avoid transporting the fungus from cave to cave.

“You need to decontaminate every time you exit a cave so you reduce the likelihood of spreading Pd from one cave to another if there is Pd in that cave,” says BCI Research Scientist Dr. Luz de Wit.

In each cave, our scientists count the number of individuals, note the species, record data such as the cave’s temperature, and gently swab the bats and surrounding substrate to test for Pd.

The samples the team collected in February and early March are now being analyzed in a lab. In the coming months, scientists will know more about just how far Pd has spread in Texas. 

Dr. Winifred Frick, Sarah Stankavich, Luz de Wit, and Fran Hutchins pose in a cave. Photo by Rachel Harper.