Every year some 100,000 plus people visit Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge to witness one of nature’s marvels. During summer evenings, upwards of 1.5 million bats emerge from the crevices of the bridge, almost like a black cloud, to feed on millions of insects. It’s a spectacular site that generates $10 Million in tourism revenue each year.
This summer it was confirmed by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services that the deadly White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) has made its way to Texas. This devastating and deadly disease afflicts hibernating bats by covering them with a white fungus, awaking them from hibernation and causing them to die from starvation. In other areas of the United States, over 95 percent of the bat populations have been wiped out because of WNS.
With White-Nose Syndrome now in Texas, are the Austin bats in danger?
White-Nose Syndrome: Are Austin Bats In Danger?
At this time, White-Nose Syndrome is not believed to affect Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge bats. The reason being is that WNS has only been shown to affect hibernating bats. The bats at Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge are Mexican free-tailed bats; bats that do not hibernate and that are active year-round. It’s important to note that the full potential impact of WNS on Mexican free-tailed bats, and all bats in Texas, is still unknown.
Scientists do fear for other bat species in Texas. The deadly WNS can be spread bat-to-bat. Mexican Free-tailed bats do share their winter and summer ranges with many hibernating species, including the Cave Myotis bat and little brown bat. Biologists fear that migrating Mexican free-tails, even if they are not themselves afflicted by the disease, may prove to be carriers that spread the fungus that’s linked to White-nose Syndrome.
If this is truly the case and migrating bats can spread WNS to other species of bat throughout North America, then the results may be catastrophic; for both bats and humans alike. A single colony of bats will eat nearly 1.5 million pest insects a year; pests that destroy agricultural farming.
Please continue to get out to Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, and marvel at the amazing bats. There are plenty of spots along Lady Bird Lake, in the surrounding area of Congress Avenue, where you can watch the bats. Flights normally begin about 8:00 pm, and may last upwards of 45 minutes.
One of the fastest declines in North American wildlife happens to come at the expense of the bat. It’s all because of White-Nose Syndrome. First discovered in New York back in 2006, WNS had spread to 28 different states, including Texas.
White-Nose Syndrome causes a fatal white fungus to grow on a bat’s bodies (the nose in particular) as they hibernate in caves for the winter. The fungus causes the hibernating bats to wake during the winter months. When awake, the bats will burn up all of their energy reserves that are usually saved when they hibernate. Due to lack of energy and nutrition, the affected bats ultimately die of starvation. Additionally, if the fungus reaches a bat’s wings, it interferes with flying, feeding, body temperature, and blood pressure.
As a result of WNS, it’s believed that upwards of 10 million bats will have died by the end of this hibernation; across all affected states and providences in North America. There is currently no cure for WNS.
What Can Be Done To Prevent WNS In Texas?
We now for a fact, WNS can be spread from bat-to-bat, but it is also believed that humans can aid the spread of the fungus. After spelunking and exploring caves in Texas, take great precautions to decontaminate yourself, and all your equipment, before entering any new caves. Decontamination protocols can be found at http://whitenosesyndrome.org/.
While exploring caves for entertainment, it is in poor taste to touch any bat you see. Doing so can further result in the spread of WNS; not to mention, bats can also carry other diseases like rabies.
While exploring caves in Texas, report any large-scale bat mortalities to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Division, especially those that occur during the winter months. The kills and spills team can be reached 24-hours a day at (512-389-4848).
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services has also joined in on the WNS fight, awarding a grant of $39,566 to the state of Texas for WNS research.