With the COVID 19 marking its presence all over the world, there’s much speculation regarding the origins of the virus that has led to the current pandemic. The most popular being the transmission from bats to humans, as the winged mammals are known to harbour several pathogens within them. While recent studies may have pointed out that bats are natural reservoirs of a spectrum of coronaviruses, there’s a lot of misunderstanding circulating regarding them which is leading to the reports of the culling of many bats around the planet. To clear the air, we will talk about what preliminary research concerning bats and coronaviruses have revealed so far.
Before we dive right in, here’s some brief information about the mammal in question–
Though our planet has a host of species such as Colugo, Sugar gliders, Flying Squirrels and even Flying Lizards that are capable of gliding from one canopy to another. Bats are the only mammal in the world that are endowed with the gift of flight as they exhibit forelimbs that extend into webbed wings. While there are several ongoing studies and research being conducted around the globe, there’s much yet to be learnt about these nocturnal beings.
From what we know, there are over 1200 species of bats across the world, under categories of insectivorous, frugivorous while some even predominantly hunt for fish. Being a mammal that displays a strong affinity for caves, trees and crevices for roosting sites in order to seek protection form predators, different species of bats often huddle up together in large clusters inside caves. Though, this constant contact along with close proximity to other wildlife in the forest very often exposes them to various pathogens. Preliminary research has shown that bats have an extraordinary immune system that have adapted and evolved to mitigate the life threatening effects of these viruses.
- It has been observed that when bats are dormant or rather in a state of hibernation, there’s a significant drop in the body temperature (Almost to 6 degrees). In order to conserve heat and keep themselves warm, bats wrap themselves up with their winged blankets. But when it’s time to fly out for the night, they generate an immense amount of energy that ends up killing certain viruses inside their body (Similar to a fever).
- Due the energy and heat generated during flight, many of their cells rupture in the process. Though, unlike most animals, bats have an inbuilt DNA repair system that restores their body to a healthy state without causing any inflammations.
The Importance of Bats
- Agents of Pest Control:
Many species of bats are insectivorous. Some of these are highly voracious eaters, where individuals are capable of consuming 500 insects in one night. Multiply that with more than a million strong, you get agents that are extremely adept at keeping insect populations under control. This role not only benefits ecosystems but it also protects our agriculture in a big way as bats clear the fields of pests while farmers rest for the night.
- Pollinators and Seed Dispersers:
There are species of bats that are widely frugivorous called fruit bats. These typically venture out during nightfall and feed on fruit until they drop the seeds, setting them up for germination. Some of them are even drawn to the nectar of flowers which is how they end up aiding plants by taking up the role of pollinators. Without these processes, the landscape and the countless habitats around us would look drastically different and in most cases, might not even exist.
Did you know that bats are the only known pollinators of the plant ‘Agave’, which happens to be the only source for tequila? Apart from that, they also play a vital role in the reproduction of durian and bananas.
Bats might be the carriers of a host of diseases, but whether or not viruses are transmitted directly to humans remains unclear. Although, preliminary studies so far have suggested that the viruses have a tendency to spill over from bats to human via an intermediary animal under certain circumstances (COVID 19 being allegedly due to the virus jumping from a bat to a pangolin to humans).
It is said, that when animals are stressed, their immune system tends to get compromised, making them far more susceptible to infections while at the same time turns them into vehicles that could transfer disease onto human beings. Currently, deforestation, habitat degradation and human encroachment are primary reasons for our increased contact with wildlife in recent. Coupled with illegal trade and animals being sold as pets, human beings are far more prone to pathogens that could jump from one species to another.
Bats have lived alongside with humans for over thousands of years. They’ve been part of our lives where they’ve contributed to our wellbeing by planting forests and curtailing swarms of insects that could wreak havoc if left unchecked. If only we could pay closer attention and appreciate what they bring to the table as co-inhabitants of our planet, could we set ourselves to learn from them and prevent events such as this from happening in the foreseeable future.