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Faculty Research Spotlight

Sarah Fritts, Department of Biology

Team of Texas State Wildlife Ecologists Work to Conserve Bats Across Texas

“Bats save farmers in Texas millions of dollars each year, but the bat population faces a number of threats.”

Dr. Sarah Fritts holding a bat in Sabah, Malaysia (on the island of Borneo), as part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation.
Dr. Sarah Fritts holding a bat in Sabah, Malaysia (on the island of Borneo),
as part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation.

In fall 2017, I started at Texas State University after spending a summer studying bats on the island of Borneo in Sabah, Malaysia. It had been many years since I worked with bats, and most of my previous work focused on other species such as reptiles, amphibians, and ground-dwelling small mammals. As a wildlife ecologist, I am particularly interested in wildlife research that can be used to guide sustainable land management and renewable energy practices. When I arrived at TXST, I found a lot of interest in bats from graduate and undergraduate students and decided to focus a lot of my research on Texas bats. Within a year, my lab included several students conducting bat research in various parts of the state.

Bats save farmers in Texas millions of dollars each year, but the bat population faces a number of threats. One threat is white-nose syndrome (WNS), a disease caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which has decimated bat populations in the eastern U.S. and is quickly spreading throughout the country. WNS has killed up to 95% of individual bats at some hibernation sites by causing bats to wake up from hibernation and lose fat reserves during a time when food supplies are low and often during extreme weather conditions. Although to date no bats in Texas have contracted the disease, the fungus that causes WNS was detected in Texas in 2017 and has now spread throughout Texas including Hays County. Unfortunately, biologists believe it is only a matter of time before bats in Texas are affected not only by the fungus, but by the disease.

To prepare Texas for the potential impacts of WNS, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) implemented a WNS Action Plan in February 2017. One goal of the Action Plan is to determine Texas bat population parameters pre-WNS exposure so that if/when bats succumb to the disease in Texas, biologists can identify the areas and species most affected and in need of protection. To do so, a team of wildlife ecologists at Texas State has partnered with TPWD to identify 50 sites across Texas for long-term monitoring. Besides myself, the team includes Dr. Ivan Castro-Arellano and Dr. Sara Weaver.

Dr. Sarah Fritts

We will work with private landowners, nongovernmental organizations, and agencies across the state to gather data recorded on acoustic detectors to assess bat activity, habitat use, and species occurrence. Although our main goal is to obtain baseline data pre-WNS, data will be collected in a way that is comparable to projects across the U.S. and will be used to examine community composition and locate important areas for at-risk species. Another benefit of this project is the close collaboration with our state wildlife agency and funder of this project, TPWD, so that data can be used in real time to make important conservation decisions and actions.

Insectivorous bats, such as those in the U.S., find objects (food, trees, buildings, water) in space by emitting high frequency sounds that bounce off these objects and are then interpreted by the sender. This is called “echolocation.” Bat echolocation is so specialized that bats can identify the size, shape, and direction of flight of their insect prey, and some can even detect the species of moth that is flying in front of them in the dark. Because of the high frequency sounds bats emit, scientists can track them through time and space using the kind of acoustic detectors our team will be using. These electronic devices are equipped with a microphone that records the echolocation calls on an SD card and can later be visualized using sonograms in special computer programs.

The importance of bats has long been overlooked throughout the world. WNS is only one threat causing declines in bats; climate change, pollution, land use change, and human destruction of roosts (because of unfounded fear) are colliding to decrease bat numbers everywhere. It is important to note that the bad reputation surrounding bats is based on ignorance and misinformation and that bats should not be feared. Many professors and students at Texas State are dedicated to bat conservation and have even formed a student-led organization called the Bat Association at Texas State (BATS) to increase awareness of this misunderstood mammal.