By Tara Lohan
As we work to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists are also studying its origins. How did the SARS-Co-V-2 virus, which causes the disease, jump from wildlife to humans? Many believe it originated in horseshoe bats (from the genus Rhinolophus), which are known hosts of other coronaviruses.
"Whether or not this particular strain came from a wild bat is still under active scientific investigation," said Winifred Frick, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California Santa Cruz and the chief scientist at Bat Conservation International, an organization dedicated to preventing bat extinctions worldwide.
Scientists are also trying to pinpoint which animals, including perhaps pangolins, may have been the intermediary pathway for the spillover. But one thing is certain: Bats play critical, and beneficial, roles in the environment and the economy.
And right now they're getting a pretty bad rap.
We spoke to Frick about why bats and other wildlife shouldn't be scapegoated in this pandemic, the threats bats face from humans, and the best actions to take for bat conservation.
Bat Conservation International's chief scientist Winifred Frick. Winifred Frick
Given what we know so far about the origins of the virus, should people be scared of wild bats?
In zoonotic disease, what happens is that you have viruses that are circulating naturally in wildlife populations. And then an event happens in which that virus spills over into the human population. If that pathogen starts to spread human-to-human, then we have a zoonotic disease outbreak.
It's important to remember that COVID-19 is at this point a human disease and it's being transmitted human-to-human. So nobody living here in North America needs to be worried about getting COVID-19 from a bat.
I think that we really want to allay concerns that people need to fear bats. There's definitely been some fear that has arisen because people hear that bats are somewhat associated [with the pandemic] and then that leads to misunderstanding.
Our general guidance is that people shouldn't be handling bats or wild animals of any kind.
There was a recommendation from the federal government that scientists may need to limit their fieldwork with bats in North America now to prevent a possible transmission of the virus from humans back to species of bats here. Is that a concern?
There is some concern about "reverse zoonosis" or spill back, which is the idea that humans could transmit SARS-Co-V-2 back to wildlife populations.
Researchers are working really hard to understand the vulnerability of other mammals to this novel strain of coronavirus. There was news about a tiger at the Bronx Zoo testing positive and some evidence that different mammals may be susceptible. We really want to make sure that we're protecting bats, which are mammals like us, from any risk from an asymptomatic human.
Just as we don't want people to spread this virus human-to-human, we don't want people to spread this virus human-to-wildlife. This isn't necessarily a specific concern about bats but really any mammal. We don't know yet if mammals could start to transmit animal-to-animal within their own populations. But right now we really want to limit exposure and limit any risk since we are still in an active research phase.
Have you seen much bat backlash?
There's some evidence that there's been some efforts to kill bats in different parts of the world. And we're very concerned about that. Bats are an important part of our ecosystem. They're incredibly biodiverse. They account for about 20 percent of all mammals globally. A lot of people don't realize that there's more than 1,400 different species of bat around the world.
And they have an enormous variety of ecological roles — what we call "ecosystem services." Here in North America, bats are primarily insect-eating and it's been documented that they provide in the billions [of dollars of benefit] for the agricultural industry in terms of their role in reducing crop predation.
It's #BatAppreciationDay! Bats have huge ecological and economical value. A 2013 study estimated that in the US al… https://t.co/vCIRaG3clT— AustralasianBatSoc. (@AustralasianBatSoc.)1587108341.0
In tropical areas bats are important dispersers of seeds and pollinators of different plants, some of which have real commercial value. For example, durian, which is the most stinky fruit and a treasure in many Asian cultures, is pollinated by bats. The agave, which is the plant that produces tequila, is pollinated by bats. So, they play very vital roles in nature and also have real economic value to human society.
Bats used to have a bad rap, but more and more, people seem to really realize just how fascinating and incredible they are. But because of some of those longstanding fears — and this new outbreak — we have to remind people that bats are really important parts of our ecosystem and part of our biodiversity heritage.
What kind of threats do bats face from us?
Globally bats face a variety of different threats, including anthropogenic land-use change, and habitat destruction and degradation. Because many species of bats form large colonies underground, those can be targets for disturbance and indiscriminate killing.
That's the one that we're really worried about right now. If people start to fear bats, we could see an uptick in directed killings. We're very concerned about that and very focused on trying to provide accurate information and also roost protection.
And of course white-nose syndrome is a major threat to our hibernating bats here in North America. It's a fungal pathogen that was likely introduced here through human trade or travel. The fungus is widespread in Europe and into temperate Asia. When it was introduced here, it spread very rapidly and has killed millions of bats.
And, unfortunately, you can't tell bats to social distance.
What can we be doing right now to help bats?
The number-one thing that people can do is to say positive things about bats and make sure we aren't scapegoating wildlife. There's a lot of evidence that zoonotic diseases are a reflection of our misuse of the planet. When people are destroying habitats and unsustainably harvesting species, those are the conditions that lead to these kinds of spillover events. And now more than ever, I think there is that recognition that human health and planetary health are intertwined and that wildlife conservation is a part of global health solutions.
Because bats do carry coronaviruses in the wild, and they have been talked about in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's really important that people speak up for bats. This is not the bats' fault. This is our fault.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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