Bats are an important part of the US economy. They devour metric tons of bugs every night that would otherwise ravage crops and also be generally disgusting-looking and make you itchy. But they're in danger from a nasty fungal infection called white-nose syndrome, which has just popped up in Texas and has been spreading across the country.
The value of bats to US farmers is estimated to be around $3 billion annually. So the spread of a bat-murdering fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans into Texas, which has the largest diversity of bat species in the US, is highly concerning.
The fungus leads to a disease called white-nose syndrome, which kills bats hibernating in caves by causing skin legions that end up being fatal over the course of months. US Fish and Wildlife Services has reported that this disease has killed at least 6 million bats.
The disease has been spreading through Europe for an extended length of time, but it is unclear how the disease made its way overseas. Bats in Europe have had time to adapt, but as it is relatively new in the US, the death toll is much higher. The fatality rate also depends on the species: larger bats being less susceptible, while little brown bats have virtually 100% mortality rate.
The disease seems to spread from bat to bat through their environment: Either direct touching or coming in contacted with infected caves. Humans may also spread the infection on their clothes or shoes from one cave to another. It does not seem to spread through the air and doesn't seem to infect humans.
The larger bats' survival rate is not necessarily wholly positive, given that they can then spread the fungus further by coming into contact with uncontaminated bats from different regions. This is why the fungus in Texas is potentially a bat's worst nightmare, given that the state has a plethora of Mexican free-tailed bats. These bats "don't hibernate for long periods and probably won't be harmed by the disease." These bats have the ability to fly long distances, possibly carrying the disease further west or south.
State and federal wildlife officials announced Thursday that the fungus has been found in 33% of states after first being discovered in Albany, New York last year. Containment seems unlikely, given that western species of the bat, such as the cave myotis, have been found with the fungus. White-nose syndrome takes about two or three years to manifest after the fungus is present.
Despite the bleak outlook, there are a few decontamination protocols and ways for humans to help our animal friends. For example, make sure to report any large-scale bat mortalities, and if you want to visit places like Bracken Cave in San Antonio, make sure to "practice appropriate hygiene." Hopefully, the early detection of this fungus in Texas will also lend a hand in saving millions of bat lives.