Emory University | Woodruff Health Sciences Center
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Bat ecology in the era of pandemics

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Photography by Neto Villalobos

Viruses carried by bats have been linked to disease outbreaks from SARS to MERS to Ebola. Evidence points to horseshoe bats as the most likely reservoir of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. One theory is that the coronavirus jumped to another species—a scaly mammal called a pangolin— at a live animal market in Wuhan, China, before spilling over into humans.

But don’t blame the bats, says Amanda Vicente, who studies the disease ecology of bats as an Emory doctoral candidate in the lab of Thomas Gillespie. “It’s important for people to know that our enemies are not the bats, but the pathogens,” Vicente says. “And in order to better fight these pathogens, we need to understand their evolutionary relationship with bats and how that relationship is being altered by human behaviors.”

Vicente is working toward just that, aided by fellow students from Rollins and the college’s environmental sciences department. Vicente is exploring cave-dwelling bats in Costa Rica to determine how human changes to bat habitats—mostly through agriculture and livestock—may stress bats, alter their behaviors and population densities, and change the dynamics for how three different pathogens they carry may spread.

“Human pressures are having a huge impact on the natural world,” Vicente says. “Our population is rapidly growing. People are cutting down more natural habitats, eating more wildlife, and coming into contact with wild animals more often.”

All these factors boost the risks of a disease jumping from wildlife to people. In fact, most emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic—animal infections that spread to humans.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest warning shot from nature,” says Gillespie, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and in Rollins. His lab studies how germs jump between wild animals, domesticated animals, and people.

The prevalence of bats makes them an important part of the equation. There are more than 1,400 known species of bats, one quarter of mammal species overall. And each bat species carries a suite of different pathogens.

Ultimately, Vicente hopes to develop a mathematical model that can be applied more universally to help predict—and control—zoonotic disease risks linked to land-use changes.

Read more about Vicente’s work at links.emory.edu/BatEcology.—Carol Clark

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