Monday 9 November 2020

Learning to be a bat carer

Blog by Dee Lawlor 

“It’s ok, I’m not a weirdo…”, the lady walking her Labrador didn’t seem convinced. In fairness, I was standing in a laneway staring agape at a bush, “…there’s bats!”. “Really?!”, she lit up. The pair of us spent the next twenty minutes standing in the laneway, excitedly pointing out every blurry little black dot that whizzed by. 

Three evenings before, I had been taking the shortcut home from the shops. It was dusk and my walking through the grass had disturbed a cloud of midges. Now, I hate midges because midges love me. And just as I was flailing a pint of milk - wildly trying to swat them away - I was rescued by a dark knight. A fur-caped crusader. A bat! Those midges didn’t stand a chance. 

“There’s bats! Bats! There’s bats in the thing!”, the groceries went cascading across the kitchen counter. “The what?”, my poor other half wasn’t expecting an excited tornado to come spinning in the door, “The lane–bats!” and I was back out the front door as fast as I had come in. 

I grew up in a family of animal lovers and I was the kid who knew the names of all the obscure animals in the zoo. The dream was always to be a zoologist. I was going to explore the far-flung corners of the world, saving animals and generally being the next David Attenborough. I did graduate in zoology but - like it has for many of us - the real world came knocking and the dream got shelved.

I had moved to Scotland in the autumn of 2017; it was now autumn 2018. We had just moved into a new house and I was building my career as a science writer. That evening, when I came across the bats, my first thought (ever the scientist) was that I needed to tell someone. A quick Google brought me to the Bat Conservation Trust website. I reported my sighting and signed up to be a batty benefactor. Since I was a young teenager, I have loved volunteering! I have been a museum curator, a wildlife tour guide, an environmental educator… anything zoology or natural sciences related, I wedged myself in there!

If you’re considering volunteering, or like the idea but are not sure, here are a few reasons you should give it a try:

  1. You get to do things most people don’t. I’ve done dental work on Palaeolithic deer, I’ve wrestled a Thylacine, catalogued human skulls, I’ve lectured and given tours, and I once held a raw diamond the size of a golf ball (and no, I didn’t get to keep it). Volunteering with animals gets you a front row, hands-on experience that you otherwise would never get.
  2. You get to see things most people don’t. The artefacts you see in a museum are but a tiny sample of the treasure chest. Most of them are hidden away in storage and will never see the light of day, but you will get to see them. You will get to see the work that is being done is helping save our wildlife and you get to see the positive impacts for yourself. 
  3. Volunteering opens doors for you that are otherwise very hard to get into. This is especially true for those who want to work with animals. Take note biology/ecology/zoology students, jobs working with animals are gold dust! Everyone wants them and those who have them don’t give them up easily. You need to get known. You’ll get known through volunteering. 
  4. You get the best of both worlds. You get the dream without having to make any radical life changes. This is my reason, and I have dubbed this technique ‘dream dabbling’.
For most of us, we are too deeply invested in normal life to go running off to rescue elephants in the Serengeti. We have jobs and laundry and bills! It’s now the spring of 2020 and my life has sufficiently calmed down to the point where I can dream dabble. I have registered with BCT to become a bat carer. I have my appointments for my vaccinations in February. Once those are done, I’ll then be matched up with a mentor to start my training. 

As George Eliot said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been”. So, here I am!

If you're interested in becoming a bat carer, click here for more information.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Coronavirus and bats

Blog by Tom August. Tom studied diseases in bats for his PhD, with a focus on coronaviruses in UK bat species. He now works as a computational ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Researchers believe that the recent outbreak of coronavirus disease in China - COVID-19 - originated in wild bats in China, just as the SARS outbreak did back in 2002. So, what is the coronavirus, why does it seem to have come from bats, and what should we be doing to stop this happening again?

If you are old enough to be reading this you have probably been infected by a coronavirus before. Members of this group of viruses cause many cases of the common cold around the world, and much like the flu, coronaviruses are always circulating the human population. It turns out the same is true in bats. Bat populations around the world, including those in the UK, have been found to host coronavirus, and just like in humans these infections don’t seem to cause them much harm.

So how come COVID-19 is making people so sick?

Coronaviruses, like a number of other viruses, are able to jump the species barrier. In the vast majority of cases the virus is not able to survive in the new host, but occasionally they do, and it's these pioneers into a new species that typically cause more severe disease than the coronaviruses that normally infect that species. This is what happened in the case of SARS and what we think has happened in the case of COVID-19.

(c) AddAlissa Eckert, MS, Dan Higgins, MAM caption
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. 

Since humans don’t typically come into contact with bats, spillover of diseases from bats to humans tend to come via an intermediate host, typically animals kept by humans. This could be animals kept for food, such as livestock or wild animals hunted for meat, or animals kept for other reasons, such as horses. Bats infect the intermediate host, which then in turn (typically in crowded conditions) spread it to other individuals, and on to humans who handle these animals. During the SARS outbreak the intermediate hosts are thought to have been palm civets, the intermediate host for COVID-19 is currently unknown.

To stop spillovers happening we need to: 1) reduce the level of disease in the wild host (in this case bats), and 2) reduce the chance they will pass on the virus to livestock or other wild animals, and in turn us.

Wild animal populations under stress tend to have higher levels of infection. Habitat destruction is known to reduce food availability for bats, which can lead to malnourishment and higher levels of infection. At the same time habitat destruction can force bats out of their natural habitat and into urban settings bringing them into contact with humans, livestock and wildlife they wouldn’t normally be in contact with. Habitat destruction is thought to have been a contributing factor to the spill over of Hendra and Nipah, two other viruses that have found their way from bats into humans.

Agricultural intensification has led to dense populations of captive animals that humans have regular contact with. This has contributed to a number of virus spillover events, including ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’. In the case of coronaviruses, both SARS and COVID-19 have been linked to markets in China selling live animals. These 'wet markets' often host a range of animals that can be bought alive or butchered, offering conditions favourable for the spread of disease between species and to humans.

Habitat destruction and agricultural intensification are just two of the many factors that cause spillover of coronaviruses from bats to humans. However, by supporting healthy wild bat populations and maintaining their natural habitats we can help to reduce the level of disease in wild populations, and keep them from close contact with livestock and humans.

Information correct as of Wednesday 26th February 2020.