It’s a bad time to be a bat.
In early May, people in four northwestern districts of India went on a bat-killing spree in an apparent, but misguided, attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the coronavirus that causes it. Nearly 200 fruit bats lay dead before the government decided to impose a punishment on killing the animals.
In April, Cubans in two provinces went after bat roosts in caves and buildings, exterminating the flying mammals with fire. A few weeks later and an ocean away in Rwanda, government workers aimed water cannons on resting straw-colored fruit bats, hoping to drive them away from the capital city of Kigali. And in March, the Peruvian government had to step in when people in the Cajamarca region descended on bat caves with lit torches. That month, the Indonesian government culled hundreds of live fruit bats for sale in food markets in what they said was an attempt to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there is some evidence to suggest that the novel coronavirus currently gripping the world might have originated in a bat, that by no means makes every bat a potential danger. And the deeper you dig into the details, the less frightening bats become.
For starters, “there are more than 1,400 living species of bats,” says Nancy Simmons, an evolutionary biologist and curator-in-charge of the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History. “Twenty percent of all living mammal species are bats.”
And of those, only one species—the horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus affinis)—has been tied to the virus, though that connection is more complicated than you might realize.
According to a review published this week in the journal Nature, scientists have found that SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus currently infecting humans) is 96 percent genetically similar to another coronavirus found in horseshoe bats in China in 2013. That means it’s the closest known relative—but it is not the same virus. In fact, that 4 percent difference in genetic code suggests the two viruses last shared a common ancestor 50 years ago.
“We don’t know where it’s been since that time, and we don’t know how it jumped into the human population,” says Simmons.
Early on, some scientists pointed to the pangolin as a possible intermediary host—a species that could have served as a middleman between bats (or another animal) and humans. But now that potential connection seems less likely, says the review.
What we do know is that there’s absolutely zero evidence bats can give you COVID-19.
With such a new and dangerous virus, there’s an incredible amount of uncertainty that has surrounded the pandemic, especially in the early months when many of the bat attacks took place. Even as our knowledge of the coronavirus and the disease it causes evolves, this unknown has stoked fear within people from all over who are trying to protect themselves and their communities. Still, indiscriminately eradicating bats can come with quite a few negative consequences.
“Disturbing and destroying habitats and killing wildlife is generally bad because it disrupts ecological systems,” says Frick.
First, many bat species play a critical role in controlling insect populations. Most people take that to mean that they eat blood-sucking mosquitoes, but the true benefits come in how many crop-damaging moths, beetles, and other pests bats ingest on the regular.
“They eat hundreds of millions of tons of insects every night,” says Simmons. Some estimates translate that service into a savings of $3.7 billion dollars each year for U.S. farmers alone.
Other bat species are pollinators that enable plant reproduction, some of which is important for crops like mangos, bananas, and the agave we use to make mezcal. In all, bats are responsible for pollinating more than 300 species of fruit. Others maintain genetic diversity of the forests they inhabit by carpet bombing new areas with seed-filled poo. Their guano is a potent fertilizer, which can even be harvested and turned into things like soap and antibiotics.
What’s more, about a third of bat species are already on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. But perhaps the most compelling argument for not going on a bat hunt? Killing bats doesn’t actually solve anything. Again, the virus threat is simply not there, and getting rid of bats is not that easy (or wise).
“Then there’s just this empty space,” says Susan Tsang, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, of the bats’ habitat. Over time, bats from neighboring colonies will discover whatever resources brought the initial bats to a place and will begin repopulating.
In fact, a study published in 2013 found that when vampire bats are culled, as they have been in Peru for more than 50 years in an attempt to prevent the spread of rabies, it can sometimes make the problem worse. Why? Because disturbed bats were more likely to interact with neighboring colonies, potentially spreading the virus to new bats that might not have been infected already, says Tsang.
So instead of attacking our winged cousins, we should be looking to them for answers.
“The fact that bats do carry a diversity of coronaviruses and have presumed tolerance for them without getting sick gives us the potential to understand how their immune systems function,” says Frick. They even may help us develop tomorrow’s vaccines and antiviral treatments. Lighting them on fire, however, will not help save anyone.
Bats are immune to Ebola, measles, and maybe even cancer. So why is white nose syndrome devastating some species?
Bat poop sustains entire ecosystems in places where they wouldn’t exist otherwise. So when bats go, many cave-dwellers go with them.
From coastal tide pools and rolling prairies to African savanna and arctic terrain, the earth is home to myriad ecosystems, each one regulated by interlinking parts, including the creatures that call them home.