Bats and bugs
Balancing conservation and public health
A fruit bat has been caught. Dr Kate Baker meticulously untangles the net before the bat can be examined.
Bats are keystone species for ecological function: fruit bats are important for fruit tree pollination and seed dispersal. But like many wild animals, bats have suffered dramatic reductions in their numbers as their habitats have been damaged or destroyed by humans. Also, in some regions, bats have been widely hunted for food.
As we encroach further into natural habitats, bats and humans are interacting more and more; now fruit bats often live in towns and cities, especially in Africa. This poses new challenges as these bats have been found to carry viruses that can cause serious diseases in livestock and people. This exhibit demonstrates how we try to understand how fruit bat viruses spill over into people, thus allowing methods to be devised to prevent this from happening while ensuring the continued survival of the bats.
How does it work?
A tiny blood sample is taken from a captured fruit bat, to look for viruses before releasing the bat unharmed.
Fruit bats are common in the tropics and have been shown to carry viruses which cause fatal, incurable diseases in humans. This has been the focus of much research in parts of Asia and Australia, but not in Africa. Our research focuses on the Straw-Coloured Fruit Bat (Eidolon helvum), one of the most common fruit bats in sub-Saharan Africa and one with close associations with people. The main questions we are pursuing are:
- Where do bats go when they migrate? Using techniques such as radio-telemetry and genetics, we try to find out if the same bats come back to the same place every year and whether the different colonies are connected.
- What pathogens do these bats carry? We regularly capture bats and take small blood samples to look for antibodies that could indicate whether they have been previously exposed to certain pathogens. We have now shown that these bats carry similar viruses to their Asian and Australian counterparts.
- Do these viruses infect people and, if so, do they cause human disease? We have recently joined forces with the Ghanaian Health Department to answer these questions.
- How do bats and people interact? By finding out the risk factors for human infection, preventative measures can be taken while also protecting the bats from persecution.
This short video and podcast introduces some of the work to be presented by this exhibit (2 mins)