It’s wrong to blame bats for the coronavirus epidemic



A small colony of Townsend’s big eared bats at Lava Beds National Monument, Calif.
Shawn Thomas, NPS/Flickr

Peter Alagona, University of California, Santa Barbara

Genomic research showing that the COVID-19 coronavirus likely originated in bats has produced heavy media coverage and widespread concern. There is now danger that frightened people and misguided officials will try to curb the epidemic by culling these remarkable creatures, even though this strategy has failed in the past.

As an environmental historian focusing on endangered species and biological diversity, I know that bats provide valuable services to humans and need protection. Instead of blaming bats for the coronavirus epidemic, I believe it’s important to know more about them. Here’s some background explaining why they carry so many viruses, and why these viruses only jump infrequently to humans – typically, when people hunt bats or intrude into places where bats live.

The challenges of life as a bat

It’s not easy being the world’s only flying mammal. Flying requires a lot of energy, so bats need to consume nutritious foods, such as fruits and insects.

As they forage, bats pollinate around 500 plant species, including mangoes, bananas, guavas and agaves (the source of tequila). Insect-eating bats may consume the equivalent of their body weight in bugs each night – including mosquitoes that carry diseases like Zika, dengue and malaria.

Grey-headed flying fox feeding on flower nectar, Queensland, Australia. Its face is covered with yellow pollen, which it will spread to other flowers.
Andrew Mercer/Wikipedia, CC BY

Bats convert these foods into droppings called guano, which nourish entire ecosystems, have been harvested for centuries as fertilizer, and have been used to make soaps and antibiotics.

Since fruits and insects tend to follow seasonal boom-and-bust cycles, most bats hibernate for long periods, during which their core body temperatures may fall as low as 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius). To conserve warmth, they gather in insulated places like caves, use their wings as blankets and huddle together in colonies.

When fruits ripen and insects hatch, bats wake up and flutter out of their roosts to forage. But now they have a different problem: Flying requires so much energy that their metabolic rates may spike as high as 34 times their resting levels, and their core body temperatures can exceed 104 degrees F.

To stay cool, bats have wings filled with blood vessels that radiate heat. They also lick their fur to simulate sweat and pant like dogs. And they rest during the heat of the day and forage in the cool of night, which makes their ability to navigate by echolocation, or reflected sound, handy.

The Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, houses the largest urban bat colony in the world.

Diverse and unique

Humans are more closely related to bats than we are to dogs, cows or whales. But bats seem more alien, which can make it harder for people to relate to them.

Bats are the most unusual of the world’s 26 mammal orders, or large groups, such as rodents and carnivores. They are the only land mammals that navigate by echolocation, and the only mammals capable of true flight.

Many bats are small and have rapid metabolisms, but they reproduce slowly and live long lives. That’s more typical of large animals like sharks and elephants.

And a bat’s internal body temperatures can fluctuate by more than 60 degrees Fahrenheit in response to external conditions. This is more typical of cold-blooded animals that take on the temperature of their surroundings, like turtles and lizards.

Bats carry a range of viruses that can sicken other mammals when they jump species. These include at least 200 coronaviruses, some of which cause human respiratory diseases like SARS and MERS. Bats also host several filoviruses, including some that in humans manifest as deadly hemorrhagic fevers like Marburg and probably even Ebola.

Normally, these viruses remain hidden in bats’ bodies and ecosystems without harming humans. People raise the risk of transmission between species when they encroach on bats’ habitats or harvest bats for medicine or food. In particular, humans pack live bats into unsanitary conditions with other wild species that may serve as intermediate hosts. This is what happened at the Wuhan wet market where many experts believe COVID-19 emerged.

With a few exceptions, such as rabies, bats host their pathogens without getting sick. Recent media coverage attempting to explain this riddle has focused on a 2019 study suggesting that bats carry a gene mutation, which may enable them to remain healthy while harboring such viruses. But while the mutation may be of interest from a public health perspective, understanding where this novel coronavirus came from requires understanding what makes a bat a bat.

The blood vessels in bats’ wings (shown: fruit bats, Northern Territory, Australia) radiate some of the heat they generate while flying.
shellac/Flickr, CC BY

Why do bats carry so many diseases but seem unaffected by them? Genetic mutations that boost their immune systems may help. But a better answer is that bats are the only mammals that fly.

With thousands of bats crowded together licking, breathing and pooping on one another, bat caves are ideal environments for breeding and transmitting germs. But when bats fly, they generate so much internal heat that, according to many scientists, their bodies are able to fight off the germs they carry. This is known as the “flight as fever hypothesis.”

Bats at risk

Bats may not always be around to eat insect pests, pollinate fruit crops and provide fertilizer. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Bat Conservation International, at least 24 bat species are critically endangered, and 104 are vulnerable to extinction. For at least 224 additional bat species, scientists lack the data to know their status.

Overharvesting, persecution and habitat loss are the greatest threats that bats face, but they also suffer from their own novel diseases. Since it was first documented in upstate New York in 2007, the fungal pathogen Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), which causes white-nose syndrome, has infected 13 North American bat species, including two listed as endangered.

Nobody knows where Pd came from, but the fact that several bat species seem never to have encountered it before suggests that people probably introduced or spread it. The fungus thrives in cool, damp places like caves. It grows on bats while they’re hibernating, causing such irritation that they become restless, wasting precious energy during seasons when little food is available. White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats, including more than 90% of the bats in some populations.

Bats are extraordinary creatures that benefit people in myriad ways, and our world would be a poorer, duller and more dangerous place without them. They need protection from the cruel treatment and wasteful exploitation that also threatens human health.

[Our newsletter explains what’s going on with the coronavirus pandemic. Subscribe now.]The Conversation

Peter Alagona, Associate Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I studied what happens to reef fish after coral bleaching. What I saw still makes me nauseous



Victor Huertas, Author provided

Jodie L. Rummer, James Cook University

The Great Barrier Reef is suffering its third mass bleaching event in five years. It follows the record-breaking mass bleaching event in 2016 that killed a third of Great Barrier Reef corals, immediately followed by another in 2017.

While we don’t know if fish populations declined from the 2016 bleaching disaster, one 2018 study did show the types of fish species on some coral reefs changed. Our study dug deeper into fish DNA.

I was part of an international team of scientists that, for the first time, tracked wild populations of five species of coral reef fish before, during, and after the 2016 marine heatwave.

From a scientific perspective, the results are fascinating and world-first.

Marine heatwaves are now becoming more frequent and more severe with climate change. Corals are bleaching, as pictured here.
Jodie Rummer, Author provided

We used gene expression as a tool to survey how well fish can handle hotter waters. Gene expression is the process where a gene is read by cell machinery and creates a product such as a protein, resulting in a physical trait.

We know many tropical coral reef fish are already living at temperatures close to their upper limits. Our findings can help predict which of these species will be most at risk from repeated heatwaves.




Read more:
‘This situation brings me to despair’: two reef scientists share their climate grief


But from a personal perspective, I still feel nauseous thinking about what the reef looked like during this project. I’ll probably feel this way for a long time.

Rewind to November 2015

We were prepared. Back then we didn’t know the reef was about to bleach and lead to widespread ecological devastation. But we did anticipate that 2016 would be an El Niño year. This is a natural climate cycle that would mean warm summer waters in early 2016 would stick around longer than usual.

But we can’t blame El Niño – the ocean has already warmed by 1°C above pre-industrial levels from continued greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, marine heatwaves are becoming more frequent and severe with climate change.

Given this foresight, we took some quick liver biopsies from several coral reef fish species at our field site in December 2015, just in case.

Coral bleaching at Magnetic Island, March 2020.
Victor Huertas, Author provided

A couple months later, we were literally in hot water

In February 2016, my colleague and I were based on Lizard Island in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef working on another project.

The low tides had shifted to the afternoon hours. We were collecting fish in the shallow lagoon off the research station, and our dive computers read that the water temperature was 33°C.




Read more:
The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. There are a whopping 45 reasons why


We looked at each other. These are the temperatures we use to simulate climate change in our laboratory studies for the year 2050 or 2100, but they’re happening now.

Over the following week, we watched corals turn fluorescent and then bone-white.

The water was murky with slime from the corals’ immune responses and because they were slowly exuding their symbiotic zooxanthellae – the algae that provides corals with food and the vibrant colours we know and love when we think about a coral reef. The reef was literally dying before our eyes.

A third of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef perished after the 2016 heatwave.
Jodie Rummer, Author provided

Traits for dealing with heatwaves

We sampled fish during four time periods around this devastating event: before, at the start, during, and after.

Some genes are always “switched on”, regardless of environmental conditions. Other genes switch on or off as needed, depending on the environment.

If we found these fish couldn’t regulate their gene expression in response to temperature stress, then the functions – such as metabolism, respiration, and immune function – also cannot change as needed. Over time, this could compromise survival.




Read more:
‘Bright white skeletons’: some Western Australian reefs have the lowest coral cover on record


The plasticity (a bit like flexibility) of these functions, or phenotypes, is what buffers an organism from environmental change. And right now, this may be the only hope for maintaining the health of coral reef ecosystems in the face of repeated heatwave events.

So, what were the fish doing?

We looked at expression patterns of thousands of genes. We found the same genes responded differently between species. In other words, some fish struggled more than others to cope with marine heatwaves.

Ostorhinchus doederleini, a species of cardinalfish, is bad at coping with marine heatwaves.
Göran Nilsson, Author provided

The species that coped the least was a nocturnal cardinalfish species (Cheilodipterus quinquelineatus). We found it had the lowest number of differentially expressed genes (genes that can switch on or off to handle different stressors), even when facing the substantial change in conditions from the hottest to the coolest months.

In contrast, the spiny damselfish (Acanthochromis polyacanthus) responded to the warmer conditions with changes in the expression of thousands of genes, suggesting it was making the most changes to cope with the heatwave conditions.

What can these data tell us?

Our findings not only have implications for specific fish species, but for the whole ecosystem. So policymakers and the fishing industry should screen more species to predict which will be sensitive and which will tolerate warming waters and heatwaves. This is not a “one size fits all” situation.

One of the species that showed the least amount of change under warming was Cheilodipterus quinquelineatus.
Moises Antonio Bernal de Leon, Author provided

Fish have been on the planet for more than 400 million years. Over time , they may adapt to rising temperatures or migrate to cooler waters.

But, the three recent mass bleaching events is unprecedented in human history, and fish won’t have time to adapt.




Read more:
Attention United Nations: don’t be fooled by Australia’s latest report on the Great Barrier Reef


My drive to protect the oceans began when I was a child. Now it’s my career. Despite the progress my colleagues and I have made, my nauseous feelings remain, knowing our science alone may not be enough to save the reef.

The future of the planet, the oceans, and the Great Barrier Reef lies in our collective actions to reduce global warming. What we do today will determine what the Great Barrier Reef looks like tomorrow.The Conversation

Jodie L. Rummer, Associate Professor & Principal Research Fellow, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.