Bat Week represents an international effort to raise awareness and appreciation for the role of bats in our world. At a moment when bats have captured our attention because of their association with the viral disease spillover responsible for COVID-19, it is time for us to reimagine and build a healthier relationship with nature and these magnificent winged mammals.
The mid-twentieth century marked the historic end of WWII, and it was also the time when scientists think SARS-CoV-2 probably diverged from its closest-known bat virus relative. Since then, the world’s urban population has grown 600 percent, from 750 million to 4.2 billion. Globally, 4.5 million square kilometers have been deforested — an area roughly half the size of the United States — while carbon emissions have quadrupled.
Is there enough room for bats and wildlife in our world? The answer must be yes! If we can shift attitudes and beliefs about bats, we can begin to have more difficult conversations about how we choose to live on this planet.
As of 2020, 75 percent of the terrestrial environment was considered “severely altered” by human action, and global mammal biomass was dominated by domestic livestock (60 percent) and humans (36 percent), with wildlife making up just 4 percent. Land use change is the biggest factor driving biodiversity loss and there has been a 68 percent average decline in global wildlife populations in the last 50 years.
During this period of unprecedented change, SARS-CoV-2 quietly evolved from that shared ancestral bat strain and went undetected in reservoir or intermediate hosts. Land use change led to increased human-wildlife and livestock-wildlife contacts, with each contact carrying a pretty small — but not zero — chance of zoonotic spillover.
Some fruit bats began roosting and foraging in sub-optimal human and livestock-dominated landscapes. In Southeast Asia, the commercial wildlife trade accelerated to meet the luxury demands of urban markets, creating many wildlife-human contact opportunities along the supply chain. Disease ecologists, having learned from SARS in 2003, surmised that another global pandemic was a matter of if, not when.
COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases have emerged because we have clearly pushed and shaken ecological systems too far. While the Baby Boomer generation saw progress in the form of commercial jet travel, the first polio vaccine, men landing on the moon, sequencing of the human genome, smartphones and the World Wide Web, bats and other wildlife have spent the last 70 plus years just trying to survive.
Bats pollinate the plants that provide them nectar, spread the seeds of fruiting trees, keep insect populations in check, and provide nitrogen rich guano that fertilizes the soil.
Bats represent 20 percent of all mammal species, and with individual species topping 1,400, it would be best if we kept them around. They pollinate the plants that provide them nectar, spread the seeds of fruiting trees, keep insect populations in check, and provide nitrogen rich guano that fertilizes the soil. They save the U.S. agricultural industry $3.7-$53 billion/year in the cost of pesticide applications alone.
Bat week reinforces these messages to counter the pervasive societal misperceptions and fears that bats are ‘scary and evil’ creatures. Yes, on very rare occasions bats can transmit diseases, so keep a safe distance and let them be.
Is there enough room for bats and wildlife in our world? The answer must be yes! Household actions can be taken in your own backyard, by planting gardens and crops that attract native insects and pollinators, and by voting and supporting conservation of wildlife habitat. Policy level solutions can be found in “One Health” approaches that set as a goal the optimal health for all living things.
Bat Week and emerging zoonotic disease threats are really about us. If we can shift attitudes and beliefs about bats, we can begin to have more difficult conversations about how we choose to live on this planet. And that is worth celebrating!
Sarah H. Olson is the associate director of epidemiology for the Health Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).