Why we shouldn’t be so quick to demonise bats



File 20171210 27698 svxxy3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Justin A. Welbergen, CC BY-NC-SA

Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University and Kyle Armstrong, University of Adelaide

Australian health authorities regularly issue public reminders not to touch bats because they can host Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV). This type of health education is necessary because it reduces human exposure to bat-borne diseases. However, subsequent sensationalist media reporting risks demonising bats, which increases human-wildlife conflict and poses barriers to conservation.

Bats are remarkable native creatures of key ecological and economic importance. We urgently need more matter-of-fact style reporting around the risks of bat-borne diseases to avoid vilification and persecution of these unappreciated mammals.


Read more: In defence of bats: beautifully designed mammals that should be left in peace


Australia’s weird and wonderful bats

Face of an eastern tube-nosed fruit bat (or ‘Shrek bat’), a solitary bat with long tubular nostrils that are thought to prevent fruit juices from running up its nose.
Justin Welbergen

Australia has 81 bat species, from nine families. They comprise the second-largest group of mammals after marsupials (159 species). They range in size from the little-known northern pipistrelle that weighs less than three grams and ranks amongst the smallest bats in the world, to the black flying-fox that can weigh more than a kilogram and is among the world’s largest.

Bats play many different roles in Australian ecosystems. The southern myotis or “fishing bat”, for example, has long toes that it uses to rake up small fish and invertebrates from rivers, lakes and ponds. The golden-tipped bat delicately plucks spiders from their webs, while the ghost bat feeds on large insects, rodents, birds, and even other bats. These are examples of “microbats” — species that use echolocation to find their way in darkness and detect prey.

Australia is also home to nine “megabats” — species that rely on large eyes and a keen sense of smell to find pollen, nectar, or fruit. The common blossom bat, for example, is a mouse-sized fruit bat with a very long tongue for feeding on nectar; the eastern tube-nosed fruit bat is a solitary bat with long tubular nostrils that are thought to prevent fruit juices from running up its nose; and the little red flying fox is adapted for long-distance flight, travelling thousands of kilometres across the Australian landscape in search of food.

A selection of Australia’s bat diversity (Top row from left: grey-headed flying-fox; orange leaf-nosed bat; common blossom bat; southern myotis; Bottom row: golden-tipped bat; eastern horseshoe bat; common sheath-tailed bat; ghost bat)
Justin Welbergen (grey-headed flying-fox, eastern horseshoe bat); Nicola Hanrahan (ghost bat); Bruce Thomson (golden-tipped bat); Steve Parish & Les Hall for remainder of species

Bats are largely nocturnal and inconspicuous, except for those flying-foxes that sometimes appear in large numbers in urban environments where they can be cause for much frustration and conflict.


Read more: Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying-foxes in urban Australia


All bats are vulnerable to a range of human threats, including the clearing of foraging areas and the loss or disturbance of roosts. Thirteen of Australia’s bat species are now listed as “threatened” under our national conservation legislation. Australia’s most recent extinction was a bat: the Christmas Island pipistrelle winked out of existence forever in 2009 following a sluggish federal government response to calls for urgent conservation action.

Why are bats important?

Bats are important in two ways. First, each species has its own value as a part of Australia’s natural and cultural heritage. They are fragile creatures, but tough enough to survive and thrive in the harsh Australian bush — if they are given the chance.

Second, microbats provide valuable ecosystem services because many are voracious predators of insects, including many agricultural and forestry pests. Megabats, meanwhile, provide long-distance pollination and seed-dispersal services, helping to maintain the integrity of Australia’s increasingly fragmented natural ecosystems.

Bats such as the grey-headed flying-fox (left) and the Christmas Island flying-fox (right) provide expensive pollination services for free.
Justin Welbergen (left); Carol de Jong (right)

Australian bat lyssavirus

Some Australian bats are hosts for Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) that can cause a rabies-like disease in humans and potentially pets. Since its discovery in 1996, there have been three human deaths from ABLV in Australia.

Image of Australian bat lyssavirus. The finger-like projections are the virus, as it is shown budding off from a cell.
Electron Microscopy Unit, Australian Animal Health Laboratory, CSIRO

The virus is rare, and its prevalence among bats is thought to be less than 1%. But it is more common among sick, orphaned, or injured bats – that are in turn more likely to end up in hands of the public.

A rabies vaccine has been around since the time of Louis Pasteur, and when combined with proper wound management and prompt medical care, is very effective in preventing the disease. Rabies vaccine that is given after exposure to ABLV, but before a person becomes unwell, can still prevent the disease. But once a person develops the disease there is no effective treatment.

“No touch, no risk”

As long as we do not touch bats we are not at risk. Yet despite this simple message, many people still handle sick or injured bats, even though this is the major cause of potential exposures to ABLV.

Christopher Todd.

Humans are not exposed to ABLV when bats fly overhead or feed or roost in gardens. Bat urine and faeces are not considered to be infectious, and tank or surface water contaminated with these substances is also not a threat.

The primary ABLV transmission route is through bites or scratches, bringing infected bat saliva into direct contact with the eyes, nose or mouth, or with an open wound. Therefore, the best protection by far is to avoid handling bats.

If scratched or bitten, wash thoroughly with soap and water.
Arlington County

If you do get scratched or bitten by a bat, the Australian Department of Health recommends that you immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water for at least five minutes, apply an antiseptic with antiviral action, and seek medical attention.

Prevention is better than cure, so people should never handle bats (or other wildlife) unless they are trained, vaccinated, and wearing appropriate protective gear. If you find an injured or sick bat, the best thing to do is to contact your local wildlife agency or veterinarian.

Reporting without the demonisation


Internet Archive Book Images/flickr

Bats already have a dark reputation in folklore, myths, and modern culture. This is exacerbated by negative media attention following public health warnings and health research.


Read more: Why bats don’t get sick from the deadly diseases they carry


We strongly encourage a more matter-of-fact style of reporting around the risks from bat-borne diseases. You are much more likely to be killed by lightning or by falling out of bed than by a bat.

The ConversationGranted, the risks posed by bat-borne diseases are relatively new to most of the public, but more nuanced framing can effectively support both public health and wildlife conservation goals. So while you remember to slip-slop-slap, be croc-wise and snake aware, and wear gloves when gardening, you should also add “don’t touch bats” to your common-sense repertoire.

Justin Welbergen, President of the Australasian Bat Society | Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University and Kyle Armstrong, Past president of the Australasian Bat Society | South Australian Museum, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Doom and gloom? Here are the environment stories that cheered us up in 2017


Madeleine De Gabriele, The Conversation and Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

Don’t let anyone tell you we’re not a cheerful bunch here on the Environment + Energy desk – even if many of the stories we cover are a little on the gloomy side.

From the Great Barrier Reef to the Australian outback, and from Canberra to the White House, it’s been another less than stellar year for the environment.

That said, the soap opera over energy policy kept us pretty entertained in the meantime.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of positive, amazing and ridiculous stories out there. So for some festive cheer, here are some good news stories we covered in 2017, and a few more we would have liked to have had room for alongside the heatwaves and political hot air.

Parrots on a flyer

Rare parrots had some rare wins this year. A night parrot was photographed for the first time in Western Australia. For a bird that’s so secretive it was previously assumed by many people not to exist, that’s a solid result.

Meanwhile, scientists in Tasmania developed amazing automatic light-sensitive doors to protect the swift parrots’ nest boxes (the excellently named “possum-keeper-outer”).

Boxing clever.
ANU
Keep out, sugar gliders.
ANU

Yoghurt-pot-washers rejoice

If you’ve invested an inadvisable amount of your free time in washing scraps of food off cans, containers and bottles before tossing them straight into the recycling, then suffer no longer. In May we reported the exciting news that most recycling facilities can handle a bit of mess.

Our Facebook page rang to the joyous strains of readers gleefully telling their parents/partners/housemates to stop nagging and let them enjoy the sweet freedom from the tyrannical regime of spotless peanut butter jars.

Hoodwinked no longer

Have you ever discovered a never-before-seen fish species that can grow larger than a very large human? Of course you haven’t. But Murdoch University’s Marianne Nyegaard has.

Beachcombing: expert level.
Marianne Nyegaard/Murdoch University

Starting with some tantalising DNA evidence that suggested there was a new species of sunfish somewhere out there, she embarked on a four-year detective mission. After a tip-off she eventually found four of them washed up on a beach near Christchurch, and named the species Mola tecta – the “hoodwinker sunfish” – in honour of its long-running disappearing trick.

When little kids say they want to be a marine biologist when they grow up, this is exactly what they mean.

We used some fancy new words

The interminable politicking over energy policy, including the Finkel Review and the National Energy Guarantee, made us want to pull our hair out at times. But look on the bright side: the endless debate brought previously obscure terms such as dispatchables, baseload, spinning reserve, inertia, and frequency control into common parlance.

As energy nerds, we’re super excited that all this stuff finally went mainstream in 2017. It’s made us so much more fun to talk to at parties. But after thinking about dispatchable energy all year, we kind of wish someone would dispatch us a stiff drink.

Whisky wonder

Speaking of which, it turns out that it’s possible to make a ten-year malt whisky in a matter of weeks, because chemistry loves us and wants us to be happy.

Swoop on this

Just as exciting is the news that you can make friends with your local magpies, with the help of some judiciously offered food. And because magpies are so smart, once you gain their trust they’ll remember you forever, with obvious benefits when swooping season rolls around.

They’re apparently partial to mince, and while it might seem eccentric to carry it around in your pockets, you’ll reap the rewards when the maggies aren’t making mincemeat out of your ears next spring.


Meanwhile, here are some other cheery developments we didn’t have space for this year.

Snow leopards on the comeback trail

A three-year survey that concluded in September found at least 4,000 snow leopards in the wild, moving the elusive big cats off the IUCN endangered list for the first time in 44 years.

While it’s not all sunshine – snow leopards are still considered “vulnerable” and face considerable challenges with poaching and habitat loss – population numbers aren’t declining as sharply as previously thought, and scientists say there could be as many as 10,000 prowling the Himalayas.

I, for one, welcome our cephalopod overlords

In absolutely stunning footage, David Attenborogh’s Blue Planet II captured an octopus using shells to disguise itself from a shark. A dexterous animal using tools to outwit a more deadly predator? Sounds familiar.

When you combine this video with reports of dozens of octopuses crawling out of the ocean onto a British beach, it might be time to get worried. The good news is that they seem to be invading Wales first.

Noisy neighbours

Nature is cool, if not always quiet. Scientists described a kind of shrimp (named after Pink Floyd) that can kill its prey with concussive sound.

Meanwhile, another study found that orgies of Mexican fish are deafening dolphins. On reflection, this is probably only good news for the fish.

Check out this spider, man

Closer to home, and considerably more quiet, a new species of jumping spider has been found on the Cape York Peninsula.

What’s in a name?
BushBlitz

The ConversationIn a fit of unwarranted optimism, the naming of this spider has been thrown open to the public. It’s a safe bet that most of the 700 submissions will turn out to be unprintable, improbable, or unimaginative variations on Spidey McSpideyface.

Madeleine De Gabriele, Deputy Editor: Energy + Environment, The Conversation and Michael Hopkin, Section Editor: Energy + Environment, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.