The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome is, at face value, an adorable addition to a bat’s scrunched-up visage, almost as if the flying mammal dove into a stash of powdered sugar. It gets less cute once you learn the fungus disrupts bats’ hibernation and burns up fat reserves so thoroughly they starve to death.
“There are a few cases where the disease could lead to extinction,” says Texas Parks & Wildlife Department mammologist Jonah Evans.
It was a decade ago that Pseudo-gymnoascus destructans fungus mysteriously appeared inside a cave in upstate New York. Today it’s creeping south and west at an average 200 miles per year. White-nose syndrome was first spotted in the Texas Panhandle in 2017; TPWD discovered affected cave bats in central Texas this April. Evans suspects it won’t be long before Pd’s path bends back, snaking its way down 290 toward Houston, carried on the boots of a spelunker or the wings of a migratory animal species.
What does this mean for the beloved colony of 100,000 Mexican free-tails—already downsized from 300,000 by Harvey—camped out under the Waugh Bridge?
“That species will probably be okay since they don’t hibernate,” Evans assures us. “But because of that, they might be vectors—sort of like Typhoid Mary.”
That means as the thundercloud of free-tails alights each night, it might spread the fungus among the 10 other bat species of greater Houston, all of which are important to our ecosystem, and some of which, like bug-loving big brown and tricolored bats, are very much susceptible to the fuzzy nose of death.
As of this writing, zero of the several million bat fatalities nationwide have occurred in Texas. There are several potential ways to fight the disease, including anti-fungal sprays, yet-to-be-developed vaccines, and special UV lights used to decontaminate caves. Evans reminds us that it takes approximately two years after detection for the effects of white-nose syndrome to materialize. Researchers are using this gap to record population data and test ways to combat the fungus before it takes hold in Texas.
“Once the damage is done, all of the population models basically show that it’s really hard to rebuild since bats mostly have one pup at a time,” he says. “We could be seeing big colony collapses in five years or less.”