In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, Lucy is found several times in the dead of night sitting up in bed and pointing to her window at a large, flitting bat. The reader soon learns that the creature is, in fact, the ghoulish titular character in disguise. Ever since, the mythological vampire has been popularly associated with the ability to transform into a bat should his blood-sucking activities unexpectedly take a turn for the worse. After all, the nocturnal animals surely fit the bill to be a vampire’s counterpart; there is even a species of bat that was named after the monsters when they were discovered sometime around the late 17th or early 18th century by Spanish explorers. Vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) were given this label because they, unlike all other species of bat, feed primarily on the blood of livestock.
Bats are fascinating animals. They have the ability to use echolocation to make their way around complete darkness, range in size from as small as an inch to having a 6-foot wingspan, and are the only mammals capable of flying. These peculiar creatures, however, have been trending in the media for a number of reasons, all of which continue to degrade their reputation. Most recently, a video of a bat biting a man who was playing his guitar in the woods has gone viral, and an article on Wired.com highlights the fact that bats harbor some of the most lethal viruses, including Ebola. Also trending is the grim news that the buggers may be going extinct.
Bats and Rabies
In September 2014, a video went viral of Darrick Skou playing guitar while on a camping trip with his friends. As Skou strums, a bat is seen circling the musician prior to swooping down and biting him on the neck. The man eventually manages to pluck the blood-thirsty critter off of his body and throw it to the ground before the video cuts. The bat then reportedly took cover in a tree, but swooped down 2 more times, taking another bite out of Skou. The episode ended only after a friend shot and killed it with a BB gun. “This thing came out of nowhere,” Skou later told KATU News. “I was thinking it was a good day until then.” The bat turned out to be rabid and Skou was placed on powerful medication to combat the potentially fatal disease. He was left feeling tired and exhausted, but was later released from the hospital and made a full recovery.
In actuality, cases like this are rare, as 70% of bats consume insects, and the rest eat fruit or prey on small animals such as birds, lizards, frogs, and fish. Of course, vampire bats (indigenous to Mexico, Central America, and South America) live off of blood, but seldom do they attack humans, as their preferred source is livestock. In the rare instances when vampire bats do attack humans, it’s usually because their primary food source has disappeared. As for rabies, less than a half of 1% of bats carry the virus and there are only 1 to 2 human deaths per year from bat rabies in the US. Throughout the world, more than 30,000 people die from the disease each year, but 99% of those deaths come from contact with rabid dogs. Rabies is a fatal disease, but death is easily preventable through education. Each year, tens of thousands of people are successfully protected from rabies through vaccination after being bitten by an animal that may have rabies, like a bat. Those who do succumb to the disease are people who are unaware of the risk associated with the bite of a wild animal and go untreated. Rabies can’t be detected by simply looking at a bat and can only be confirmed in a laboratory. However, a bat that shows signs of unusual behavior, such as being active during the day and found in places not usually seen, such as in your home or on your lawn, may be more likely to be rabid. If bitten by a bat (or any wild animal), seek medical attention immediately.
Bats and Ebola
As of October 2014, the current Ebola epidemic has taken the lives of over 4000 people, affecting multiple countries in West Africa and easily making it the largest in history. What is the origin of the outbreak? Sources are starting to speculate that bats, which are believed to be natural reservoirs for some of the planet’s most lethal viruses, are to blame. Many of the world’s worst epidemics have been traced to bats, and new bat-borne viruses are being discovered all the time. It is thought that fruit bats are natural Ebola virus hosts. The 2014 Ebola outbreak has been traced to a 2-year-old child from the village of Guéckédou in southeastern Guinea, where bat meat is commonly hunted and eaten, and the child’s family has stated that they hunted at least 2 species that carry the Ebola virus. The fact that bats can survive the virus unscathed makes them the perfect hosts. However, most people buy bat meat from markets where it is already cooked, so it is those who hunt or prepare the raw meat who are at the highest risk of exposure.
Researchers looking for the reservoir of Ebola tested more than 1000 small animals in the Central African nations of Gabon and the Republic of Congo, including 679 bats. The only animals found to harbor Ebola were bats, specifically 3 species of fruit bat. At least 2 of the species are also found in Guinea, where the current outbreak began. It’s very possible that bats were the source of the outbreak, and officials in Guinea already banned the consumption and sale of bats in March when the outbreak began. However, it’s not known definitively whether bats are the source of the current outbreak. A more certain claim could be made if researchers found the same genetic sequence for Ebola in people and bats in the region.
Bats and Extinction
Finally, scientists warn in a study that one of North America’s most common bats will go extinct in the Northeastern US within 2 decades if a deadly disease continues to spread. A condition called white-nose syndrome is wiping out at least 9 hibernating bat species at a rate of almost 75% a year in affected colonies, research shows. The condition is named for the white fungus that appears on affected bats’ noses, wings, and ears and makes bats restless and disturbs their hibernation. This causes the bats to burn up their fat reserves and results in their deaths. Biologist Winifred Frick and colleagues found that little brown bat populations plummeted when the syndrome appeared in North America. “We also found that if mortality continues the way we’ve seen it, the regional population of this bat will basically be gone from the landscape in 16 to 20 years,” said Frick. There is no cure for the syndrome, but scientists are scrambling for ways to fight the disease.
The extinction of these bats can affect humans, too. Bats eat a lot of insects, such as mosquitoes, that damage crops, spread disease, and are general pests. A single little brown bat can eat up to 1000 mosquitoes an hour. “All the bats affected are insect predators,” Frick said, "and an individual bat can eat its own body weight in insects each night.”
- Adams R. Rabid bat attacks, bites man jamming on guitar. KATU News website. Updated September 15, 2014. http://www.katu.com/news/local/Rabid-bat-attacks-bites-man-jamming-on-guitar-274985571.html?tab=video&c=y.
- Basic facts about bats. Defenders of Wildlife website. http://www.defenders.org/bats/bats.
- Drake N. Why bats are such good hosts for Ebola and other deadly diseases. Wired website. October 15, 2014. http://www.wired.com/2014/10/bats-ebola-disease-reservoir-hosts.
- Handwerk B. Bats may be wiped out by fungus in U.S. Northeast. National Geographic website. August 5, 2010. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/08/100805-bats-white-nose-fungus-extinction-science-environment.
- Hogenboom M. Ebola: is bushmeat behind the outbreak? BBC website. October 18, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-29604204.
- Rabies: learning about bats and rabies. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Updated April 22, 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/bats/education/.
- Rettner R. Where did Ebola come from? Live Science website. September 22, 2014. http://www.livescience.com/47946-where-did-ebola-come-from.html.