Personal Essay: Bats are in the midst of a pandemic too
I did not grow up thinking I would want a career in bat conservation, but after falling in love with them I cannot imagine doing anything else.
So many bats are dying right now, and too few people care. The origin of coronavirus is still clouded with uncertainty, but scientists suspect the virus originated in bats. Unfortunately, their hesitation has not stopped citizens, and even some governments, from killing bats to stop its spread. Indonesian authorities recently caught hundreds of bats and burned them in an effort to save themselves from infection. Bat researchers have faced a loss of public and financial support, and neighbors are fighting over bat houses that they fear will lure infected animals near their families.
This is my story…
I grew up an hour away from Washington, D.C. and remember many trips there with my family. My favorite part of the city was the National Mall, and my favorite thing to do on the Mall was go to the Museum of Natural History. I used to think that was all the nature D.C. had to offer until last summer when I accepted an internship that led me to parts of the city I never knew existed. It is easy to miss the peaceful wooded parks where locals go to walk their dogs and appreciate any shade they can find in the sweltering summers. However, after dark when the parks are closed, a different set of locals come out. Last summer, I had the opportunity to conduct bat surveys with D.C. Fish and Wildlife to collect population data, and I spent those months catching, handling and getting to know D.C.’s tree-nesting bat populations.
The commute into the city is not so bad when my shift starts at 6 p.m. I meet everyone at Fort DuPont a few hours before sunset and am greeted by my boss, Lindsay Rohrbaugh, a herpetologist turned bat-lover who recently went back to school for acupuncture. With her, stands our technician, Catherine Fox, who teaches biology at a community college in California, so she can go on adventures and conduct research during her summers off. Two volunteers have joined us tonight for our midnight expedition, and we hike, with our clunky equipment, off the trail and down a steep ridge into the woods. It does not take long for the sound of cars to change to burbling creeks and muted footsteps. As the evening light starts to fade, we reach our site for the night: A twisting creek at the bottom of two slopes. We will not see any bats until it is fully dark, but we have a lot of work to do before then.
We set up nets over the water and between trees in the growing darkness. One by one, we turn our headlamps on and illuminate our little campsite of folding chairs and surveying equipment. Every fifteen minutes, we get up and spread out to check all of our nets for bats, but in the meantime, conversations dwindle; we are left sitting with our lights off to conserve batteries. The trees block out any light or sound from the street, and I marvel at how surreal it feels to sit together in a dark, silent circle. Sometimes, the cool breeze and rustling leaves are incredibly peaceful, and sometimes we make the mistake of telling ghost stories before splitting up to check nets.
Around 11 p.m., bats start flying down to the creek to find water and insects. I walk up to my net and see a tiny ball of fur wriggling furiously above my head. The struggles grow more intense when I put on my gloves and untangle it from the net to slip gently into a paper bag. I will officially identify it at camp under Lindsay’s expert eye, but from first glance, I can see it is a Big Brown bat. My return is met by sounds of excitement, as many of us have sat through slow nights without catching anything. Millions of bats have died across North America from a sudden and devastating disease called White Nose Syndrome, and severe declines can be seen in D.C. At similar sites along the East Coast, up to 90 bats might have been caught 10 years ago, but now 20 is considered a busy night. Out of those few bats, about 95% are Big Browns. Little Brown bats used to be one of the most common species, but none have been caught in D.C. for several years: They are thought to be locally extinct.
White Nose Syndrome is also the reason for the awkward paper bag. Researchers used to have cloth bags so bats could dig their claws in and hang upside down comfortably, but reusable bags are not allowed anymore. Although there have not been any confirmed cases of White Nose in D.C., it is only a matter of time and several precautions are taken to avoid spreading the disease. We use new rubber gloves and wipe down our measuring tools every time we handle a different bat, and we are always on the lookout for symptoms.
The disease got its name from the white fungus that grows on infected bats’ noses, but the real damage is the way this fungus eats away at their skin, especially their wings. It also causes them to wake up during hibernation and burn through their limited fat stores without any way to replenish their energy until insects come out. If they do survive until spring, their immune system will kickstart and kill off fungus and body tissue alike. The Center for Biodiversity estimates 6.7 million bats have died since 2006, and many more will succumb to the 70 to 90% mortality rate among hibernating bats. In some places that number has climbed towards 100%, and caves that once supported hundreds of thousands of bats now sit all but empty.
Once safely back in the ring of bright headlamps, I weigh my paper bag and pull out a very irate Big Brown bat. Despite their name, it is small enough to fit in the palm of my hand and covered in silky soft fur. I determine it is a lactating female and measure her wings, feet and ears. I carefully unfold her wings to inspect for White Nose scarring and, thankfully, find none. Once I have all of my data, I thank her for the trouble and lift up my open hand to let her fly away. Tired from her struggle, she is still for a moment before taking off in an erratic flapping of wings.
I did not grow up thinking I would want a career in bat conservation, but after falling in love with them I cannot imagine doing anything else. Unfortunately, it can be hard to convince people to love these incredible creatures. Due to social misconceptions and old wives tales we find it hard to relate to them. It is usually easier to explain the extrinsic value of bats and ecological services they provide. Some bats are nocturnal pollinators and tend to live in tropical or arid climates where flowering plants are available as a food source year round. According to the U.S. Forest Service, bat pollination is essential for the growth of bananas, avocados and the agave plant used to make tequila.
In North America, the majority of bat species are insectivorous and help control crop pests. They are the only mammal capable of true flight, and to support their fast metabolism they can eat their body weight or more in bugs over one night. Unlike birds, their wings are supported by elongated finger bones, which makes them incredibly agile and precise hunters. Moths have developed escape techniques specific to bat predation, and a study by Boston University found that simply broadcasting bat calls in a crop field can change moth behavior and reduce infestations.
Despite how important they are, bats have never been under as much fire as they are now. A few nights ago, one of my roommates pointed to the TV and said, “This is what Lindsay wants to do for the rest of her life.” He was referring to a close up picture of a snarling, unkempt bat on the news. Family members have unashamedly told me they kill any bats they find in their house because it is easier than having them removed.
“I just don’t want them in the house. They’re gross, you know?”
No, I do not know.
The truth is the chance of contracting any disease from a bat is low. In fact, the high prevalence of viruses found in bats is likely not a unique characteristic. Bats are easy to survey in large numbers, and more tests conducted means more diseases are documented. Unfortunately, new diseases found in unpopular animals make flashy headlines, no matter how statistically insignificant they are.
Climate change is displacing wildlife at an unprecedented rate as we destroy, fragment or develop their habitats. Without anywhere else to go, their territories are forced to overlap with ours, and they face much harsher conditions than they would in the wild. These stressed animals are more susceptible to illness and infection while in much closer contact to us. The “super-shedder” effect describes the tendency of immunocompromised animals to shed more viruses and encourages spill over to human populations. Wildlife contains a huge reservoir of bacteria that our immune systems have not evolved to fight, and thanks to our ability to travel the world, we have the potential to spread unknown pathogens into the global population.
This should prove that we need to eradicate wildlife trafficking and stop destroying natural land. Trades such as beekeeping and mixed farming can be used to ensure that the protection of the natural world also protects livelihoods, as well as to integrate the public with conservation efforts.
Curious joggers often came up and asked us what we were doing during my internship. Most were surprised that there are bat populations in D.C. to begin with, but it offered us the perfect opportunity to start a conversation about the importance of bats and how much they need our help. Until we learn to love, or at least tolerate them, there is a very real possibility that the next summer intern will witness their extinction.