Regarding the rediscovery of the New Guinea big-eared bat (“Rescued from Extinction,” page 16, Bats Winter 2015), what kind of person would “collect” a bat not having been seen for 120 years? Was this someone from your organization? In this day of high-quality photos and recordings, why is it necessary to collect anything? Are you supporting those who did this? Thanks for your reply,
BCI response: To your excellent questions, here’s what we know: BCI funding and staff were not involved in this project. The bat was captured during a broad survey of bats during 2012 in Papua New Guinea and was not recognized for what it was at the time, as it’s very similar to a more common species found in the region. At some point afterwards, someone saw the specimen in the museum collection and realized it could be a big-eared bat. It was then sent to Australia, where an expert confirmed it as a big-eared bat.
This happens fairly often with species that are collected and then misidentified in museum collections. The Smithsonian just found such a bat from Indonesia in a 1930’s museum collection in the former East Berlin.
Collecting animals for museum collections and other forms of research has its place, and in this case, as well as many others, it has led to the discovery of new species or rediscovery of old ones. Such discoveries not only increase our knowledge about the diversity of life, but can also stimulate conservation action for species we previously did not know existed. Collections also enable scientists to study changes in the environment, species ranges and impact of disease over time, something that is very hard to do without this resource.
While museum collections are valuable, BCI is concerned about some forms of collecting and speaks out on this issue. Field biologists and ecologists generally are very selective on what they collect and why, but we have seen some examples recently where large numbers of bats were, we feel, unnecessarily collected. These examples were usually associated with virologists and epidemiologists studying bat-borne disease, and we are continuing to advocate for less invasive methods in these studies.
Should we be worried about the 16 new viruses that scientists have discovered in bat species? Are they likely to lead to more outbreaks like Ebola?
BCI response: In recent years, scientists have increasingly focused on bats in their search for new viruses. Because bats represent such a large proportion of mammals (nearly 25 percent) and are so diversified in their biology, habitats and natural history, it seems reasonable to assume that they could have many viruses, just like other large groups of animals.
The connections between bats and disease outbreaks caused by zoonotic viruses sometimes have been raised more on speculation than on evidence supporting their direct or indirect roles in the epidemiology of those diseases. It is important to know that there is a difference between identifying a virus or bacteria in a bat, or any other animal, and that virus or bacteria causing disease in people.
Disease experts have pointed out that many viruses found in animals do not cross over into other species. As is true for Ebola, some zoonotic diseases that can infect humans can also be found in multiple wild species, and transmission of the virus or bacterium often depends on human behaviors (e.g., eating bushmeat). So while we may find a virus in one species, transmission to humans may only occur through another. This is the case with the Hendra virus thought to reside in flying-fox populations in Australia, where transmission of the disease to humans has only occurred through contact with sick horses.
While it is more than likely that bats harbor some diseases that could potentially infect humans, we need to appreciate the complex nature of disease transmission and the role human activities play in transmission. Many factors can influence whether a virus found in one species is a potential source of human disease.