OCTOBER 26, 2020
Looking ahead, our best defense against future pandemics is intact ecosystems—a buffer from zoonotic diseases, so many of which have the potential to spill over to people. And to maintain these intact systems, we need bats, which play vital roles in ecosystem integrity.
This is among the many reasons to appreciate these mammals. In honor of Bat Week, Oct. 24–31, here are some more.
Using the word “bats” is like saying “ungulates”—there are many species and they fill different niches in our ecosystems. In general, big bats and small bats fly in different places and feed on different sized insects. A healthy diversity of bats reflects a healthy diversity of insect prey.
The key to medical treatments for COVID-19 may rest with bats themselves. Some scientists are studying the bat immune system to better understand how they coexist with the same viruses that cause high mortality in humans. Research on the diversity of coronaviruses found in bats has already played a role in developing drugs like remdesivir.
Analyzing insect prey in bat diets is expensive and thus remains understudied; but the more we look the more we discover that bats are eating important agricultural and forestry pest insects.
Insectivorous bats eat 50-100% of their body weight each night. Imagine what that does to control insect populations. It’s estimated they save the U.S. agricultural industry billions per year in the cost of pesticide applications alone.
Some bats are pollinators, providing critical nectar-drinking services to important plants. Others disperse seeds. Fruit bats deliver a rain of small seeds up to 75 km from roost sites, supporting tropical forest biodiversity and protecting local livelihoods. One large colony of straw-colored fruit bats in Accra, Ghana, generates about 26 seed dispersal events per square km and over 300,000 events total each night.
As the largest fruit bats in Africa, hammer-headed bats are excellent seed dispersers, critical to forest health.
Bat species have their own vocalizations. If you want to find out who’s around you just need to listen in, which is really helpful for researchers. Speaking of which …
In 2016, researchers from WCS and Fordham University found five bat species living in the Bronx. The results were particularly exciting as they reveal that even in one of the largest megacities like New York City, there are sufficient green spaces available to provide habitat for bat species and other wildlife.
Bats can see, but they are also capable of finding their way in the pitch black. They do it through echolocation—they emit sounds as they fly (which are out of our range of hearing) and use the echoes to map their surroundings.
The gigantic ears of the Towsend’s big-eared bat are pointed forward during flight, providing highly sensitive directional echolocation.
A major anticoagulant in the saliva of the cave-dwelling common vampire bat also reduces inflammation. Researchers have been investigating its potential to help stroke patients.
Time for us to reimagine and build a healthier relationship with nature and these magnificent winged mammals, writes WCS’s Sarah Olson at Medium.