Bats carry a sinister reputation, starting from their appearance of a winged rat that sleeps upside down. Even if they are basically harmless for humans and domestic animals, with only a few hematophagous species out of the thousands existing, they inspired the legends about vampires. Medically speaking, bats are behind all the viral epidemics of the last decades. Once again, bats have to shake off their negative reputation: they’re not the problem, they can actually be the solution…
“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror in their hearts. Must be a creature of the night, black, terrible… a… a… a bat!” Batman comics started with this strip, which explains Bruce Wayne‘s choice of his spirit animal, in order to pursue his fight against crime.
Bats carry a sinister reputation, starting from their appearance of a winged rat that sleeps upside down. Even if they are mostly harmless for humans and domestic animals, with only a few hematophagous species out of the thousands existing, they inspired the legends of vampires.
Christianity depicted the devil with bats’ featherless wings and Medieval bestiaries made mythology and superstitions gorw. Being nocturnal, the bat was the perfect company for witches. Not surprisingly, these chiroptera are among Halloween scary symbols.
Other cultures didn’t have this adverse prejudice on bats, though. In China they are a sign of longevity, the Mayans had a deity – probably the god behind the idea of Batman – named Camazotz, union of the terms “death” and “bat”. However, it wasn’t meant as an actual death, more like an initiation.
Native Americans from the north of the continent considered the bat as a symbol of intuition, for its night vision, and rebirth, because of its sleeping position which reminds newborn babies. In Central America bats inspired the legendary vampiric figure of the Chupacabra, “goat sucker” in Spanish, mythological monster that combines many animals.
Medically speaking, bats are behind all the viral epidemics of the last decades. SARS in China, MERS in the Middle East, Nipah in Malaysia, Ebola in Africa, and now Covid19. The pattern is always the same, the virus goes from bats to an intermediate host and then there is the spillover towards humans. Once again, bats have to shake off their negative reputation: they’re not the problem, they can actually be the solution.
The movie Contagion by Steven Soderbergh showed in the last scene a possible scenario. Deforestation removed bats from their habitat, only then they infected pigs and so on. Of course Soderbergh is not a prophet, he just put a typical situation in. Conspiracy theories may be fascinating, more often reality is boring but, at the same time, scarier.
WWF claims a strong connection between zoonosis and climate change, habitat alteration and loss of biodiversity. That puts us in front of our responsibilities more than the hypothesis of evil scientists paid by evil governments to genetically modify and release deadly viruses for who knows which reason.
“The forest can be our best antivirus, because it keeps a balance. When this is broken, it’s like Pandora’s box”, the Italian geologist Mario Tozzi said. The so despised and feared “plague-spreader” is an important resource for us, because it can keep viruses circulation circumscribed in that specific habitat.
Bats have an amazing immune system, constantly active, and their anti-inflammatory response make them “super animals” capable of destroying viruses. Not coincidentally, they can live much more than other same-size mammals, more or less 40 years instead of 2-3 of rodents.
“Because of their strong immune system”, Mario Tozzi added, “bats become more aggressive when under stress, they produce more saliva and release more viral load on host animals, that’s when the spillover happens”.
The pangolin is a possible host for this specific pandemic. Officially, it’s not on any menu or farming, but it’s often illegally trafficked for the (not proven, of course) aphrodisiac properties of the scales. It’s also a high status gourmet dish (even when illegal) worth hundreds of dollars for a kilo. The will of stopping the black market and the semi-legal wet markets (where barely alive wild and domestic animals are piled up in a totally unhygienic conditions) is not just a naive sympathy for a species, it involves a lot of crucial issues (environment, public health, tax evasion for billions of dollars, even financing of terrorism).
Whether they were demons, gods or superheroes, bats couldn’t have just been seen with indifference. Even a merely scientific (sometimes anthropocentric) approach cannot consider them neutrally. They’re helpful in agriculture, as they can pollinate at a long distance, they are a defense against mosquitoes – they can eat thousands per night – now the whole world discovered its “antivirus” characteristics. At their own conditions, though.
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