As economic development continues to expand, so too will the number of infectious diseases that plague our population, Plowright says. “We are driving these species to the edge of their ability to survive,” she says. “There’s nothing that’s untouched anymore.”
Pressures such as habitat loss and hunting can also drive animals into new environments and cause them undue stress. This in turn hamstrings their immune defenses and increases the likelihood that they’ll shed pathogens into their surroundings. By agitating bats, “we’re just making it much more likely for that perfect storm to happen,” Misra says.
All this makes the recent glut of anti-bat sentiment all the more concerning, Lear says. Based on media reports, violent incidents targeting these creatures appear to have escalated in frequency since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic—putting aggressors in even closer contact with the very viruses they fear. These attacks, which have included attempted exterminations by fire, are also occurring in the absence of definitive evidence that SARS-CoV-2 passed directly from bats to humans; so far, preliminary studies suggest that at least one “intermediate” host played a role in ferrying the pathogen to people.
Schneider draws a parallel to Isaac Asimov’s “Hostess,” a 1951 science-fiction short story that describes the spread of a mysterious, deadly disease among several alien races that have come to visit Earth. Humans, it turns out, are the source of the infection, which has become a natural and largely unnoticeable part of their existence but swiftly kills extraterrestrial creatures.
“We don’t know the silent viruses that we carry,” Schneider says.
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So perhaps bats shouldn’t be faulted for the company they keep, Langwig says. In fact, they may now need protection more than ever before. In April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the International Union for Conservation of Nature both recommended a suspension of fieldwork involving direct interaction with wild bats, out of concern that humans could spread SARS-CoV-2 to North American species. Though a bat version of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is highly unlikely given these animals’ viral history, bats do suffer their own infectious illnesses, including white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has devastated populations across the continent.
Halts to bat research won’t last forever. But Langwig and Lear both worry that even a brief pause in research, including projects focused on bat conservation, could further jeopardize vulnerable species—and, by extension, the ecosystems they support. Bats need to be kept safe, Lear says, especially when they still have so much to teach us.
“There is a huge opportunity there to say, ‘Okay, they can do it; how can we then do it too?’” she says of their ability to coexist with viruses. “So, don’t kill bats. They might actually be the key to learning how to fight these viruses in the future.”