(CultureMap Austin) -- Just a few miles down the road from the bright lights of Austin, Dripping Springs holds on to its natural nights. The community's efforts to practice better night lighting have earned it designation as a Dark Sky Community from the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), the first in Texas and one of only seven in the entire world.

Dripping Springs residents can gaze at stars no longer visible in most cities. Chances are, they also sleep better and enjoy better health.

Research shows that exposure to artificial light at night can increase risk for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer, and other ailments. It disrupts our normal day-night cycle, or circadian rhythm, and suppresses melatonin production. This hormone induces sleep but also has antioxidant properties, lowers cholesterol and helps our thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes and adrenal glands function.

Artificially bright nights also affect other animals and even plants. Light interferes with the ability of nocturnal mammals (those active at night) to hunt or hide and disrupts mating habits of some animals. For example, fireflies use their charming blinking lights to find mates but, when forced to compete with porch lights and street lamps, the insects lose out. Frogs and toads use croaking at night to attract partners and can be confused by night lighting.

Bright nights interfere with navigation by birds that migrate at night, and millions of birds die every year colliding with illuminated buildings and towers. Artificial lighting also affects seasonal cues that tell migratory birds when to go, which can cause them to miss the right conditions for nesting and foraging.

As anyone with a porch light knows, insects are drawn to light. Unnatural concentrations around lights make bugs easy pickings for predators, contributing to declining insect populations. That affects animal species that rely on insects for food or plants depending on them for pollination.

Finally, artificial light that shines into the sky or your neighbor's property also wastes energy. The IDA estimates that properly designed outdoor lighting could reduce energy use by 60 to 70 percent, saving billions of dollars and cutting carbon emissions.

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