The virus that causes COVID-19 potentially originated in a bat host, but bats are not to blame for the pandemic. It was humans who altered ecological systems worldwide and unnaturally increased opportunities for viruses like this to emerge.
Looking ahead, our best defense against future pandemics is intact ecosystems—a buffer from zoonotic diseases, so many of which have the potential to spill over to people. And to maintain these intact systems, we need bats, which play vital roles in ecosystem integrity.
This is among the many reasons to appreciate these mammals. In honor of Bat Week, Oct. 24–31, here are some more.
1. There are a ton of different bat species
Using the word “bats” is like saying “ungulates”—there are many species and they fill different niches in our ecosystems. In general, big bats and small bats fly in different places and feed on different sized insects. A healthy diversity of bats reflects a healthy diversity of insect prey.
2. They may help us find treatments for COVID-19
The key to medical treatments for COVID-19 may rest with bats themselves. Some scientists are studying bat immunology to better understand how bats coexist with the same viruses that cause high mortality in humans. Research on bat and human immune systems and differences in how they interact with SARS-CoV-2 are playing a role in identifying when and where in the disease cycle medical therapies can be targeted.
3. They keep agricultural pests in check
Analyzing insect prey in bat diets is expensive and thus remains understudied; but the more we look the more we discover that bats are eating important agricultural and forestry pest insects.
4. They eat A LOT of insects, too
Insectivorous bats eat 50-100% of their body weight each night. Imagine what that does to control insect populations. It's estimated they save the U.S. agricultural industry billions per year in the cost of pesticide applications alone.
5. They play other important roles in ecosystems
Some bats are pollinators, providing critical nectar-drinking services to important plants. Others disperse seeds. Fruit bats deliver a rain of small seeds up to 75 km from roost sites, supporting tropical forest biodiversity and protecting local livelihoods. One large colony of straw-colored fruit bats in Accra, Ghana, generates about 26 seed dispersal events per square km and over 300,000 events total each night.
As the largest fruit bats in Africa, hammer-headed bats are excellent seed dispersers, critical to forest health.
6. They have unique voices
Bat species have their own vocalizations. If you want to find out who’s around you just need to listen in, which is really helpful for researchers. Speaking of which ...
7. They are New Yorkers
In 2016, researchers from WCS and Fordham University found five bat species living in the Bronx. The results were particularly exciting as they reveal that even in one of the largest megacities like New York City, there are sufficient green spaces available to provide habitat for bat species and other wildlife.
8. They can 'see' in the dark
Bats can see, but they are also capable of finding their way in the pitch black. They do it through echolocation—they emit sounds as they fly (which are out of our range of hearing) and use the echoes to map their surroundings.
The gigantic ears of the Towsend's big-eared bat are pointed forward during flight, providing highly sensitive directional echolocation.
9. There's a video game for them
Play the game to learn how to protect bats from white-nose syndrome—a fungal disease that has already killed millions of bats in North America.
10. One species has super saliva
A major anticoagulant in the saliva of the cave-dwelling common vampire bat also reduces inflammation. Researchers have been investigating its potential to help stroke patients.
More for Bat Week
Bat Week and COVID-19: It’s Actually About Us
Time for us to reimagine and build a healthier relationship with nature and these magnificent winged mammals, writes WCS's Sarah Olson at Medium.
How to Make Bats Less Scary
Based on survey data, a group of scientists, including from WCS, recommends balanced conservation messages that address public health threats from bats and human-caused threats to bats to inspire conservation action.
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