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.
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?<p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>Our general guidance is that people shouldn't be handling bats or wild animals of any kind.</p>
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?<p>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.</p><p>Researchers are working really hard to understand the vulnerability of other mammals to this novel strain of coronavirus. There was news about a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/nyregion/bronx-zoo-tiger-coronavirus.html" target="_blank">tiger at the Bronx Zoo</a> 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.</p><p>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.</p>
Have you seen much bat backlash?<p>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.</p><p>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.</p>
What kind of threats do bats face from us?<p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>And of course <a href="https://therevelator.org/fungus-killing-americas-bats/" target="_blank">white-nose syndrome</a> 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.</p><p>And, unfortunately, you can't tell bats to social distance.</p>
What can we be doing right now to help bats?<p>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 <a href="https://therevelator.org/biodiversity-health-pandemics/" target="_blank">destroying habitats and unsustainably harvesting species</a>, 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 <a href="https://therevelator.org/coronavirus-wildlife-trade/" target="_blank">wildlife conservation is a part of global health solutions</a>.</p><p>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.</p>
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A deadly fungal disease responsible for the deaths of millions of bats across the U.S. has been confirmed in Texas for the first time.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexa Peters
October is a time for bats. As the crisp fall air descends, plastic bats swing from trees and confectioners make treats in their little winged shapes. The little spooky creatures even have an entire week leading up to Halloween dedicated to them: International Bat Week. Yet they remain largely misunderstood.
1. Educate About Bats, and Start Young<p>Saving bats and preserving the multitude of benefits they bring has to start with the narrative we tell about them.</p><p>First we need to understand what they are—and what aren't. Many see bats as flying rodents, when in fact these dog-faced mammals are closely related to humans. Their wings, in fact, are a variation on the <a href="http://blogs.bu.edu/biolocomotion/2011/10/16/bats-the-only-flying-mammal/" target="_blank">human hand</a>.</p><p>We tend to avoid bats because we fear them – or at least fear what they might be carrying: rabies. Yet, Dr. Thomas Rodhouse, lead researcher on the Oregon State study, says the risk of rabies is <a href="http://www.batcon.org/resources/for-specific-issues/bats-human-health" target="_blank">lower than you might </a>think, especially if you learn the proper, respectful bat-handling <a href="http://www.batcon.org/resources/for-specific-issues/bats-human-health" target="_blank">techniques</a>.</p><p>A disproportionate fear of bats can also be addressed in how we educate children about them. With this in mind, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife provides <a href="https://batslive.pwnet.org/edubat/" target="_blank">education trunks</a> that teachers and parents can rent.</p><p>"We have actual specimens of bats preserved for kids to see up close," says Rachel Blomker, communications manager in public affairs for the department. "We've got bat skeletons, and it's interesting a lot of folks think bats are like flying mice, but actually bats are more related to humans than to rodents. It's really cool then to get kids thinking about the importance of bats and just keeping an eye out and being more aware of the need for bats."</p>
2. Recover and Preserve Bat Habitat<p>Bats love river valleys, where the insects on which they feast are the most plentiful. As a result, preserving the habitat there can be key for strengthening bat resiliency, Rodhouse says.</p><p>"If there's one thing we could do to help hoary bats, it's plant and preserve big cottonwoods along river valleys. That's a habitat strategy that could be considered a mitigation to offset the kinds of losses going on," Rodhouse said.</p><p>Another suggestion to aiding bats is retaining the snags in wooded areas, Rodhouse said. Bats roost in the sloughed bark of these hollow, decaying trees and will often raise their babies there during the summer—so, leave those dead limbs in your yard if you can.</p>
3. Plan Bat-Friendly Urban Spaces<p>Bats have learned how to use urban areas to their advantage. This is why we often encounter them using spaces in our homes and around other man-made structures such as bridges. But by building awareness, we can accommodate bats in ways that help them thrive while also preventing an unexpected encounter.</p><p>At home, installing <a href="https://batweek.org/install-bat-house/" target="_blank">bat boxes</a> or small wooden bat houses, deters bats from entering your home. Unfortunately, hoary bats don't use these, but for species in the area such as the little brown bat, they can be a great way to promote peaceful coexistence.</p>
4. Report Bat Sightings<p>Bats are elusive and hard to study. Species in Pacific Northwest tend to hibernate in smaller groups than those in the east—making them difficult to locate, Blomker says.</p><p>She suggests that one of the most helpful things a person can do is help track and monitor bats—especially if they are roosting in spaces on your private property. That way, biologists can come out, check on the colonies and better understand how they live.</p><p>"We have an <a href="https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/diseases/bat-white-nose" target="_blank">online reporting tool</a> ... that has helped us quite a bit; we had our first case of WNS found east of the cascades in Washington just last month," Blomker said.</p><p>A private land owner had reported a colony of 750 bats in his barn in addition to some dead ones that tested positive for White Nose Syndrome, a devastating, cold-loving fungus that eats away bat wings as they hibernate, wakes them up early from torpor, weakens bats and causes them to starve to death.</p>
5. Support the Efforts of Conservation Groups<p>Dr. Winifred Frick, chief scientist with Bat Conservation International suggests people seeking to help preserve the population look for opportunities to fund such work.</p><p>By becoming a member of <a href="http://www.batcon.org/?gclid=CjwKCAjwldHsBRAoEiwAd0JybTsx09NemhtPi3As5APS6h09bGnwMmgf1RcimloiQ8j4sMviyyvTrRoCnQYQAvD_BwE" target="_blank">Bat Conservation International</a>, for example, you help scientists address threats like turbines and the mysterious White Nose Syndrome. White Nose Syndrome is a particular concern because it has killed an estimated <a href="https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/bat_crisis_white-nose_syndrome/Q_and_A.html" target="_blank">6.7 billion bats since 2009</a>, and scientists are still unsure how the fungus that causes the disease spreads and whether it can be eradicated.</p><p>A donation also helps fund bat educational programs, habitat restoration, and further bat research. In the Pacific Northwest, a nonprofit called <a href="http://www.batsnorthwest.org/" target="_blank">Bats Northwest</a>, works to educate the public about bats, teams up with government biologists to protect them, and promotes responsible actions in human-bat conflict.</p><p>Conservation groups like these also ally with industry groups to promote corporate accountability. The bat conservation group has been working closely with the wind energy industry for more than 15 years, especially after <a href="https://www.jstor.org/stable/43267494?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents" target="_blank">2011 data</a> revealed that about 450,000 bat fatalities per year occurred at wind facilities, with hoary bats accounting for 50% of the fatalities.</p><p>"We've done a lot of work trying to identify different solutions including determining if it's possible to change the wind and wind turbine blade spin to reduce the number of fatalities," Frick said. "And technological solutions like acoustic deterrents that could potentially deter bats from flying near the turbine blades" in the first place.</p>
What has leathery wings and needle-sharp teeth, feeds at night, and drinks blood?
By Stacey McKenna
I'm sitting on a ridge at 9,000 feet, overlooking the world's largest alpine valley. The mid-June sun drops behind a nearby cliff band and the clouds shift, leaving errant rays of light shimmering in the passing agricultural vehicles' dust trails. Behind me, a fence blocks access to a yawning hole—the entrance to the decades-defunct Orient iron mine—from which tens of thousands of bats should start emerging any minute now.
The lesser long-nosed bat made bat history Tuesday when it became the first U.S. bat species to be removed from the endangered species list because of recovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced.
By John R. Platt
It's Friday evening in Pittsburgh, and the mosquitoes are out in force. One bites at my arm and I try to slap it away. Another takes the opportunity to land on my neck. I manage to shoo this one off before it tastes blood.
I'm at Carrie Furnaces, a massive historic ironworks on the banks of Pennsylvania's Monongahela River. Stories-tall rusting structures loom all around me, as do the occasional trees poking their way out of the ground. A tour guide, leading a group from the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, tells me the soil here is full of heavy metals and other pollutants from the factory, which operated for nearly a century before closing in 1982.
Mercury accumulation, previously considered a risk for aquatic ecosystems, is also found in many wildlife species living on the land, according to a new report published by the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Hidden Risk: Mercury in Terrestrial Systems of the Northeast highlights the BRI’s scientific findings on high levels of mercury contamination in songbirds and bats throughout 11 northeastern states.
“While the risk of mercury to people is well known—there are more than 3,700 fish consumption advisories issued in the U.S.—we are still learning about mercury’s effects on wildlife,” says David C. Evers, Ph.D., BRI’s executive director and chief scientist. “Mercury accumulation has many implications for the health and survival of wildlife species across habitats, not just those that live and feed in aquatic habitats. Our research has found that mercury concentrations in animals that live in terrestrial environments are significant enough to cause physiological and reproductive harm. This knowledge is creating a major paradigm shift in ecotoxicological research, assessment, monitoring, management, and policy.”
Hidden Risk is the most complete synthesis of songbird and bat mercury data in the Northeast published to date. This report documents, for the first time, elevated levels of mercury in a wide range of songbirds and bats living in a variety of terrestrial ecosystems in northeastern states from Maine to Virginia. Among the findings:
- Current environmental mercury loads have the ability to significantly reduce reproductive success in several songbird species of conservation concern in the northeastern U.S., including the saltmarsh sparrow and rusty blackbird
- Bats also build up significant body burdens of mercury. Individuals from multiple species from all 10 areas sampled in the northeastern U.S. exceeded the subclinical threshold for changes to neurochemistry
- Mercury loading in songbirds is not only restricted during the breeding season. For some species, such as the northern waterthrush, high levels of mercury accumulate during migration and in tropical wintering grounds.
Songbirds and bats, often referred to as insect eaters, are more accurately called invertivores because they eat a wide variety of invertebrate species such as spiders, snails, and worms, in addition to insects. “The role of invertivores in the ecosystem has until now been largely ignored in mercury investigations,” says Evers. “However, these species are more common, widespread, and sensitive to mercury contamination than previously known; studying the terrestrial food web can serve as an effective biological network of important indicators for people and wildlife.”
Hidden Risk presents findings from at-risk habitats, and associated indicator species are identified based on the species’ level of conservation concern, relative abundance, and ability to build up mercury in the body. The report demonstrates the significant costs of mercury to wildlife that were not factored into previous cost/benefit analyses.
In the U.S., mercury becomes an air pollutant largely through emissions from coal-fired power plants. In some areas, cement plants and mining related industries also add to mercury pollution. Airborne mercury eventually returns to the earth in rain, snow, and fog droplets, as well as in dry form. Under the right conditions, mercury is transformed into methylmercury, an organic toxin that becomes magnified as it is ingested up the food chain. The toxic effects of methylmercury may include both neurological and reproductive harm to wildlife, and to people who consume contaminated wildlife.
“While air pollution impacts people and nature on public and private lands, the good news is that when action has been taken to reduce mercury emissions, the results are very promising,” says Dr. Timothy Tear, New York director of science for the Nature Conservancy. “Research has shown that reduction in mercury levels do make a difference to dramatically and quickly reverse mercury contamination trends in fish and wildlife. Reducing this neurotoxin from the environment will benefit wildlife and people.”
Hidden Risk outlines a number of management actions that can be taken to reduce the mercury risk in various terrestrial ecosystems, ranging from cleaning up legacy dump sites to reducing atmospheric deposition. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Rule that requires coal-fired power plants to update their mercury pollution control technologies, and this report highlights the importance of tracking the biological implications of this rule through better national and international monitoring programs. The report also calls for the establishment of critical loads for air-borne contaminants that are based upon preserving healthy ecosystems. Critical loads identify the maximum level of pollutant deposition that ecosystems can handle before harmful effects occur.
Air pollution continues to be an important area of environmental concern. The recent U.S. EPA MATS ruling and release of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program Report to Congress: An Integrated Assessment underscore the fact that although efforts to reduce air pollution in the U.S. are working, there is still much more work to be done.
More than 50 researchers contributed to the information in this report, which illustrates the continued interest in advancing our understanding of the impacts of air pollution—in particular mercury—on nature and people. Hidden Risk: Mercury in Terrestrial Systems of the Northeast and related materials are available online at by clicking here.
The mission of the Biodiversity Research Institute is to assess emerging threats to wildlife and ecosystems through collaborative research, and to use scientific findings to advance environmental awareness and inform decision makers. BRI’s science programs include wetlands, mammal, raptor, waterfowl, migratory bird, marine bird, coastal bird, wildlife and renewable energy, and tropical programs. BRI’s research efforts stretch throughout most of North and Central America, as well as across sites in South America, Russia, South Africa and Europe. For more information about BRI's work, click here.
For more information, click here.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide.