In a museum in central France, researchers fondly feed insects and kitten milk to tiny orphaned bats – creatures widely vilified for their role in human disease outbreaks, most recently COVID-19.The pandemic has sparked bat massacres in communities from India and Peru to Cuba and Rwanda, but the mission of the Bourges Museum of Natural History team is to protect misunderstood winged mammals.
Bats are vital pollinators and voracious consumers of crop-damaging pests, but are vilified as spreaders of disease and often described in popular culture as blood-sucking pests.
“People are afraid of disease,” said museum director Laurent Arthur, who has spent years studying and saving bats.
“But COVID-19 is not transmitted by guano [bat droppings], ” he insisted.
Arthur and his team of specialists have identified more than 1,500 bat colonies in the greater Bourges region, and keep a meticulous eye on their movements and well-being.
Scientists believe the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 600,000 people worldwide to date, originated from bats and was transmitted to humans via an intermediate animal, possibly pangolins sold in meat markets Chinese.
Bats are also believed to have been responsible for recent Ebola outbreaks in Africa.
Bats – of which there are more than 1,200 species worldwide – appear to have a unique immune system that can make them resistant to pathogens, transmitting them without getting sick, according to retired epidemiologist François Moutou, who works with the museum.
“As it is the only flying mammal, it consumes a lot of oxygen to nourish its pectoral muscles,” Moutou said.
High levels of oxygen can damage DNA, so bats have developed a gene repair toolkit known to boost its immune response, he added.
Feed the puppies
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), 60 percent of human infectious diseases come from animals, including bats.
This figure jumps to 75% for “emerging” diseases like Ebola, HIV, avian flu, Zika or SARS – another type of coronavirus.
But humans, not animals, are to blame, researchers say, who say the emergence of animal pathogens in our own species is most often associated with human encroachment on creatures’ natural habitats.
At the Bourges museum, they are working on ways to reduce the human impact on bats, for example with a new type of insect trap that spares the bats that feed on them.
They also create special bat nests in places where building upgrades have removed their access to rafters.
The researchers are also moving entire colonies of bats to new homes in the vineyards of the Center-Loire region.
“Bats can drive out all the pests that destroy vineyards,” Arthur explained.
No bat stew
One of the main tasks of the team is to save baby bats, known as puppies, which are sometimes left behind when colonies move.
Researcher Aurelie Chrétien patiently feeds tiny pipistrelle bats that weigh only a few grams each, using markers filled with kitten milk.
For serotinic baby bats, a larger species with razor-sharp teeth, she uses a special leather glove, but no less tenderness.
Meals take place in the museum’s closed amphitheater, making it easier to herd baby bats together in the event of mass floating.
With 30 years of study dedicated to bats, the Bourges museum has become a scientific reference on the impact of large industrial projects, such as wind farms – which can be harmful to bats.
Every two years, the museum welcomes some 500 specialists from across the country to discuss all things bat related.
“We are Mecca, Lourdes or, for atheists, the Pantheon, for bats,” Arthur said.
They also spread the message that bats are not the enemy.
“You have to tell people that there are no risks. The problems lie in practices that we do not have in France. Here, we do not cook the animal, we do not make bat stew, ”said Moutou.
Bats are eaten in parts of Africa and Asia, but there is no evidence that this practice is responsible for the spread of disease to humans.
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