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Austin may hire a chiropterologist. That's a fancy word for a bat scientist.

Bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge
Gabriel C. Pérez
About 1.5 million bats call the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge home for most of the year.

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Austin's iconic bat population faces a lot of challenges. Freezes. Fungus. Future development.

So, the city's Animal Advisory Commission wants to hire a bat biologist, known in bat-people speak as a chiropterologist, to ensure the world's largest population of urban bats doesn't fly the coop.

The commission unanimously voted last week to recommend hiring a full-time chiropterologist in the hopes of preserving the population of 1.5 million bats under the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge.

The Mexican free-tailed bats are migratory, but call Austin home most of the year. They face a unique set of challenges, says Dianne Odegard, executive director of Austin Bat Refuge. She thinks a city biologist could help coordinate efforts to preserve the population against "some of the inevitabilities" it faces.

"We really hope that happens," she said.

Texas' particularly punishing and often unpredictable freezes can kill off the bats. There's also white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that's ravaged populations farther south of Austin.

A radar image of bat populations emerging from the Bracken Cave in San Antonio and from under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin on March 14.
Austin Bat Refuge
A radar image of bat populations emerging from the Bracken Cave in San Antonio and from under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin on March 14.

Then, there's the development at the former Austin American-Statesman site, which Odegard says could disturb the bridge-dwelling bats next door.

"There's going to be an enormous amount of noise and commotion and lighting going in there," she said, "as they're demolishing that building and putting up new buildings and building an underground parking garage."

Odegard says a dedicated biologist with city resources could help resolve "bat-human conflict" there. For example, if the bats start to roost in the parking garage (thinking it's a cave) or if the buildings at the site crowd out the sun (and heat) during cold snaps.

The construction could disrupt their roosting, she says. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates bats typically raise more than 750,000 pups at the site every year.

Odegard says the sheer size of Austin's bat population demands a local expert, like the one hired by the state's parks agency.

But the local position isn't a lock; it's subject to approval by the Austin City Council.

Shortly before the Animal Advisory Commission's unanimous vote, Don Bland, the city's chief animal services officer, said he supported the creation of the full-time position. The biologist could work with Austin Animal Services staff to fill in gaps and more directly address the population, he said.

"My personal opinion is this is something the city would benefit from," he said.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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