Many scientists believe that the Corona virus has come to us as the result of human contact with bats, whether that exposure occurred in so-called “wet markets” where wild animals (including bats) are sold as food and, ironically, as traditional medicines, or from people hiking through caves or other wild places frequented by one or more of the 1,400 species of the world’s only flying mammals. Whatever the point of contact, the bat-to-human hypothesis hasn’t done much good for bats’ already sketchy reputation.
Bats are unusual animals. Although appearance and behaviors vary dramatically, we tend to think of all bats as black rats with skin-covered wings, hanging upside-down in caves during the day and flying blind at night guided by squeaking sonar in numbers so great they appear as a dark cloud in search of blood. (Just to that last point, while about a third of bat species suck the heck out of grapes and ripe mangoes, only 3 or 4 actually drink blood.) Another unusual characteristic, bats also have a pretty unusual relationship with many virulent and terrifying illnesses. They can carry and transmit, apparently without suffering any ill effects themselves, the deadly viruses linked to Ebola and SARS, among others, and can even contract rabies and come away from that exposure unharmed. But blaming bats for Covid-19 makes about as much sense as being angry with the Sun because of skin cancer. We need the Sun, and bats play several crucial roles in the environment as pollinators and insect-eaters on a massive scale (insects themselves, of course, also linked to the transmission of human diseases).
Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly knowing our own species, humans’ almost certainly undeserved Covid-related increased fear of bats has resulted in acts of violence against bats with bat roosts recently turning into targets for arsonists. The short-term results are the deaths of thousands of blameless and likely harmless wildlife and the destruction of critical and already vulnerable habitat. The long-term results include not only further tipping already precariously tipped ecosystems, but also increased risk of wildfires. One might think a more enlightened and potentially useful approach would include the attempt to understand what allows bats to survive exposure to such viruses, no…?