While the whole world is in a quest to find an antidote for COVID-19 and stop the massive loss of human lives, scientists are also vigorously trying to trace the origins of the deadly coronavirus 2. But before there is any clarity on the matter, people all around the globe are already blatantly accusing bats of being the main culprit. This news is spreading around the world like wildfire and the image of the bat is taking a serious battering. For instance, recently, I saw a news channel report where people are scared for their lives because bats are roosting in their temple area. In some parts of India, people are cutting down trees and bursting crackers to ward off bats roosting close to human habitation. Although bats are known to be carriers of the coronavirus, there is no proof of bat to human transmission in the absence of an intermediate host animal, and moreover, not all bat species are carriers of the virus. Despite this, ill-informed news are doing the rounds, creating unnecessary panic among the masses and greatly threatening not one but all species of bats alike. In this article, I discuss some facts that are related to bats and zoonotic diseases amidst all the ‘chiroptophobia’ (fear of bats).
Benefits of Bats
Bats are the only mammals capable of flight, and according to estimates, there are some 1400 species of bats in the world today. Bats perform distinct functions in the food web as primary, secondary and tertiary consumers, and have evolved diverse dietary habits including insectivory, carnivory, frugivory, nectarivory, piscivory (fish-eating) and even sanguinarivory (blood-feeding).1 For instance, as insectivores, they keep a check on the insect and pest population in agricultural fields, while also feeding on airborne insects which cause health issues in humans and other mammals by acting as vectors of several pathogens. Similarly, frugivorous bats are considered to be one of the best seed dispersal agents which can disperse seeds from one ecosystem to another, a function that significantly helps in maintaining forest diversity. Nectarivorous bats on the other hand feed on the nectar of flowers, and in the process aid in the pollination of plants. In India, bats also pollinate one of the highly valuable Mahua tree (Madhuca longifolia) or Indian butter tree which provides a variety of services to humans. For instance, flowers of this tree can be utilised as food and used in making distilled spirits; wood of this tree is utilised in making wagon wheels; flowers and seeds are used in extracting oil and several other things.2
Image: A bat hanging on a grille in my balcony
Bats and Zoonotic Diseases
Lately, the occurrence of zoonotic diseases (diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans) such as Avian Influenza, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, Nipah virus and many others are becoming common. Generally, bats and other wild animals are known to be the carriers of these viruses, although the virus cannot be easily transmitted to humans. Most of the epidemics and pandemics that occurred in the past were majorly due to direct contact of wild animals with humans either through domesticated animals or through large scale wildlife trade. Also, one of the possible sources of viruses is the wet markets where fresh meat of different animals are sold to people, making them platforms for several viruses to thrive.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recently conducted a study on two South Asian bat species, namely, the Indian Flying Fox (Pteropus medius) and the Fulvous Fruit Bat (Rousettus leschenaultii), to understand the origin of coronaviruses. The study revealed that the viruses found in bats, known as bat coronavirus or BtCoV, is different from SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19. Also, a press statement released by South Asian scientists and conservationists working on bats stated that there is no evidence which can clearly prove that bats are responsible for COVID-19.
Blaming bats and other wild animals for disease outbreaks is not a solution when we are the ones who are responsible for the problem. In the name of development, humans are rapidly reducing and damaging the natural ecosystem of wild animals. Due to lack of natural habitat, bats and other animals are rapidly evolving in human-dominated landscapes. Increased livestock farming, wildlife trade and habitat destruction are the main reasons for the outbreak of various zoonotic diseases around the globe. It is high time we think about the effects of our actions on wildlife as they will not only destroy them but will also destroy us – a scary reality that the world is facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Fenton, M. B., & Simmons, N. B. (2014). Bats: A World of Science and Mystery. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
- Kunz, T.H., Torrez, E.B.de, Bauer, D., Lobova, T. & Fleming, T.H. (2011) Ecosystem services provided by bats. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: 1-38.