By John Carey, Education Programmer
Urban legends often portray bats as winged terrors straight out of horror films, but these flying predators are an important part of a complex ecosystem.
Without bats, mosquitos would quickly overrun the world. In fact, many bat species can eat close to their own body weight in insects every night. To attract and protect these beneficial predators, Jones Park maintains bat boxes and educates the public about bats and the issues that threaten them.
Texas is home to bat species that are both year-round residents and migratory visitors. Among the bats that reside at Jones Park are evening bats, big brown bats, Brazilian free-tailed bats, and Rafinesque’s big-eared bats. Big brown bats and Rafinesque’s big-eared bats are year-round residents, whereas the migratory evening and Brazilian free-tailed bats visit the park for summer roosting.
Bats spend the day tucked away in caves, culverts, and tree cavities, emerging at night to hunt using echolocation. During the winter in northern parts of the country, bats enter a deep state of hibernation. But in our area, they roost during the winter months in a semi-dormant state known as torpor. The fact that Texas’ bats do not enter deep dormancy may save them from a looming threat, which is ravaging entire bat populations in the northeast – white-nose syndrome (WNS).
WNS is a disease caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. This fungus infects hibernating bats when their immune systems have slowed. The disease wakes them early from dormancy when temperatures are still cold. Without a food source, the bats die of starvation.
Though little is known about how to combat WNS, researchers are continually working on ways to deal with affected colonies and populations. Last winter, I was part of a research team led by Melissa Meierhofer from Texas A&M University’s Natural Resources Institute. We traveled through Texas looking for the WNS fungus in bat colonies and their roosts. Although we detected the fungus in north and central Texas caves, none of the bats swabbed were infected with the fungus. It may be that Texas bats are not affected like bats to the North due to differing winter habits. It’s also possible that the disease could spread to other parts of Texas in the future.
To help prevent the spread of the fungus, anyone who visits a cave can take a simple precaution. If you go caving or spelunking, be sure to thoroughly wash any clothes or gear you use before entering another cave system. Fungal spores can survive on clothing that is not properly disinfected. You can also help by donating to an organization studying WNS, such as Bat Conservation International (BCI), Bat World Sanctuary, and fightwns.org
The natural world is incredibly resilient and has an impressive ability to bounce back from adversity, and history has shown that small steps made by people can make a difference.
Anyone who would like to learn more about my research is invited to attend a lecture at Jones Park Saturday, July 20. Stay tuned for details!