Texas researchers hope grants will stop spread of disease threatening state's bats

For almost a decade, Texas researchers have closely watched the state’s bat population for signs of a disease that has killed millions of North American bats: the white, powder-like substance on their nose and wings; the erratic hibernation patterns; the piles of dead bats at cave openings.

And every year, those researchers breathed a sigh of relief. Their bats were safe.

That changed last year. Swabs from three different kinds of bats in the Lone Star State’s panhandle came back positive for white nose syndrome, aptly named for the white fungus that grows on the tiny winged creatures.

The discovery of the disease, which has a nearly 100 percent mortality rate, was “devastating,” said Winifred Frick, senior director of conservation science at the Austin-based Bat Conservation International, at a news conference Tuesday.

But about $600,000 in grants announced Tuesday by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation  could help researchers stop the disease’s spread in Texas. That amount is part of $1.3 million being handed out nationwide for six projects. The money comes from public and private entities: the foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shell Oil Co., and  Southern Co.,, an Atlanta-based gas and electric utility business.

With these funds “we’re hoping to make a stand,” said Paul Phifer, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast region. “They show that the government working with the private sector can really turn research into action … so I’m really hopeful.”

Frick’s organization is involved in the two funded projects in Texas. The first, run by Western Michigan University, will examine the use of the drug Chitosan to decrease the rate of infection and limit damage to tissue. The drug, typically used to treat obesity and Crohn’s disease, will be tested on bats in Michigan and Texas. 

In the second project, Texas Tech University researchers will look into whether manipulating environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity, in caves reduces the severity of the syndrome.

In all six grants, awardees added some of their own funds to the pot of money. Western Michigan put in about $118,000 and Texas Tech contributed $60,000.

White nose syndrome largely affects bats that hibernate in caves because the fungus thrives in the cold. Scientists believe it is largely transmitted from bat-to-bat, though there is some evidence that it could be transmitted by humans, according to whitenosesyndrome.org.

The disease causes bats to lose their fat reserves long before winter ends. They wake up too frequently during hibernation and starve to death, Frick said.

Its path of destruction began about a decade ago in New York state and has since spread to 30 other states in the U.S. and parts of Canada.

Though Texas is now one of those states, Frick said there still is time to save the state’s bats. It typically takes a year or two following the fungus discovery for a bat’s tissue to be invaded by the fungus, which leads to their death, she added.

Frick’s organization already is working on these two projects, she said, and will being field work in December when the bats prepare for hibernation.

“We’re trying to see if we can actually prevent bats getting diseased,” she said.

Alex Stuckey writes about science and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. She can be reached at alex.stuckey@chron.com and Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

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