Like some celebrities, bats have a bit of a public relations problem — people get freaked out by their appearances, they tend to be most active at night and their behaviors can look a little creepy. Understandably, these negative feelings are heightened during crises like COVID-19, which is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and may have originated in bats in China. In response, some people have resorted to killing, harming or harassing bats, but it’s important to be informed about the pathways of transmission, the causes of such zoonotic spillover events and the vital role that bats play in our environments. Only then can we minimize risks associated with the current and future pandemics.
SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus, which is a term used to describe a large group of spherical viruses with spikey projections on their surfaces that affect birds and mammals. Scientists have identified hundreds of coronaviruses, but only seven are known to affect humans, and most cause only mild-to-moderate symptoms. Scientists think that SARS-CoV-2 may have passed from bats to an intermediary host, and transmission from the intermediate host to humans likely occurred at a live wildlife market in China.
These establishments sell live and dead animals for human consumption and can create conditions that facilitate zoonotic spillover events, as we’ve seen with COVID-19.
Regardless of how SARS-CoV-2 originated, once the virus passed to humans, COVID-19 spread through human-to-human contact. To date, there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 passes directly from bats to humans or that this particular coronavirus occurs in North American bats, but there are concerns that humans could transmit SARS-CoV-2 to our native bat populations, which could have unintended ecological and economic effects. Bats represent incredible diversity ― over 1,400 species worldwide ― and they provide many benefits, including pest control, crop pollination, fertilization and nutrient redistribution, among others. Scientists estimate that one bat can eat up to 6,000 mosquitoes per night. And collectively, bats save U.S. farmers more than $3.7 billion dollars per year by reducing crop damage and pesticide use.
We have 12 bat species in Louisiana, and they use a variety of habitats for roosting and foraging, including forests, wetlands, grasslands and urban settings. Again, killing, harming or harassing bats will not protect people from infection or end the COVID-19 pandemic. These actions will only reduce the ecological and economic benefits we gain from having bats in our environments and accentuate the threats to native bat populations. Instead, take the same precautions you would take if COVID-19 wasn’t circulating among humans.
Many people fear or dislike bats, but a closer looks reveals that bats are actually amazing animals. They are social, use complex signals to communicate, navigate and hunt using echolocation, and exhibit many other fascinating behaviors that add to the diversity of life and contribute to our well-being. Check out resources provided by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries or Bat Conservation International to learn more about bats and the ecological services they provide. You could also head outside at dusk and enjoy the show from afar. Bats are true aerial acrobats, and watching them forage on flying insects can be exciting. Consider installing a bat house on your property. Such actions won’t solve the current crisis, but focusing on these activities could help our state’s bats and provide opportunities for you and your family to enjoy the great outdoors.
Photo caption: Bat-watching in Southeast Louisiana. Photo by Whitney Wallace, LSU AgCenter.
Ashley Long is a wildlife specialist and assistant professor in the LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources.