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LOVING BATS IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

By Carolyn Lytle, Resident Volunteer, Kartchner Caverns State Park

It was our second season of volunteering at Kartchner Caverns State Park. All was going well – Doug, my husband, was doing a lot of tram driving. I was in training to be a Lead Guide for the Rotunda-Throne Room Tour. We both did a shift or two a week at the Gatehouse or Portal. I spent time at the Interpretive Desk where I shared stories of pelts and skulls or rocks and formations. It was a busy time with plenty of work to do and lots of socializing with volunteers and staff. There seemed to be potlucks every week. Conversations in the break room and around the fire pit featured two subjects: the cave and bats.

Life at Kartchner was perfect – from the soft red sunrises to the brilliant sparkle of the desert sunsets, every day was satisfying and interesting. And then….

The world stopped. COVID-19 came into our lives and the cave tours came to an abrupt halt over fears of “indoor spaces.” Our volunteer work stopped for a while. Life became both simplified and astoundingly complicated. Living in a beautiful park gave us plenty of space to social distance as we enjoyed the beauty of the Whetstone Mountains and the San Pedro Valley. But without work to do, we had some unexpected time on our hands. Time that came with frightening new questions about viral transmission, wearing masks, decontamination and other topics we never had to face before and time to worry about ourselves, our friends and our family.

As bat lovers, it was just natural to start thinking about bats and their connection to this novel coronavirus. Bats were in the news – were people really eating them? Was it bats that spread this virus to other animals in a wet market in Wuhan, China? Could it be that our favorite mammal was to blame for a global pandemic? With plenty of time to do research and aBat held in a gloved hand while being checked. need to distract myself, I focused on COVID-19 and bats.

Here at Kartchner Caverns, the rangers and volunteers have a special appreciation for bats and therefore special reasons to amplify our bats’ reputations. These caves have been providing a safe roost for maternity colonies of Myotis velifer (common cave bats) for about 45,000 years. Long before the caves were discovered in 1974, mama bats have been finding their way into the Big Room of the caverns and successfully delivering their pups there. To ensure the bats’ safety and privacy during this remarkable time of birth and nurturing, the Big Room side of the cave is closed from April until October. No humans enter; no lights are on; no man-made disturbances – just a safe environment for bats to deliver their young.

Before COVID-19 exploded into our lives, the devastation of White Nose Syndrome on the bat population was our major concern. For years now, the bat population of Europe and North America has been devastated by a fungus called White Nose Syndrome (WNS). It can kill 90% of bats in any given bat roost. It is a sad world that sees the diminishment of these flying mammals. Do we also have to blame them for this awful pandemic?

So instead of spreading hate and fear of these amazing creatures, I want to get the word out to celebrate them and all they do for humankind. There is much to love about bats.

The beneficial service bats give to the agricultural community is enormous. They pollinate over 300 kinds of food-producing plants – including some I would not want to live without: agaves which give us tequila and margaritas, cacao trees which eventually become melt-in-my-mouth chocolate, and yummy treats like bananas, mangoes, peaches, cashews, figs and dates.

The Myotis velifer that have a maternity roost in our caves are mostly insectivores. Eating as many as 500 mosquitos, moths, gnats or other insects in an hour, these fellow mammals keep those pests away from us. Bats are worth over $1 billion per year in pest control costs and prevent pesticides from entering our ecosystems. And while they are doing all this, they help disperse the seeds of plants too.

Now, bats are not cuddly but some are cuter than others.

Strange-looking bat with curled nose

With over 1,400 species of bats worldwide, you see a wide variety of size, of facial structure, of color. But did you know that all bats’ bone structure is very similar to humans’ bone structure? Yep, their skeletons look eerily familiar.

Bat skeleton bones

However, they are better designed physiologically than us. Mother Nature endowed them with more practical bodies than ours: They can fly. Their mammary glands are under the wings, conveniently keeping their pups warm while nursing. They have the unusual capacity for delayed fertilization. A female will hold on to the male contribution (sperm). When it is convenient, when they are safe and warm, and when there are lots of insects to keep them sated, that’s when fertilization occurs. And their superpower is echolocation which enables them to pinpoint a mosquito flying over your head from many feet away. They also can identify their own pups by smell and sound. A mama bat can pick her own pup out of a roost of sometimes thousands of bats crammed together on a few feet of rock ceiling in absolute darkness. And we can’t forget the rich fertilizer that is made from guano – bat droppings. Because of its high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, bat guano provides essential nutrients for plant growth. Quite an amazing animal!

With a raging pandemic swirling around us, fear and loathing of bats is easier to feel than love and admiration. But maybe this will help change your mind:

Scientists around the world are hoping to involve bats in their search for a cure for COVID-19. There is much speculation, testing and experimentation, and sometimes just hope. It’s possible that by studying the way bats cope with stress – stress caused by their adaptation to flying, or stress caused by diseases they carry – we might be able to emulated this coping mechanism for humans. Bats seem to have adopted a resilience, a peaceful coexistence, with deadly viruses like SARS, Ebola, MERS, H1N1, Zika and this novel coronavirus. Scientists are looking at this phenomenon to hopefully yield beneficial therapies for us humans. Bats have found ways to combat inflammation from disease by creating proteins to block viral cycles. Bats don’t suffer from high fevers or any other symptom. This may prove to be the key to learning how to fight virus in humans.

Rumor has it that bats started this deadly pandemic, but bats need an intermediary mammal to transfer the virus. One of those mammals may have been the strange pangolin. Scientists are looking at the gene structures of bats and pangolins and the possible exchange of viral genetic materials. We blame bats, but there doesn’t seem to be a barrage of blame being put on this guy’s scaly back. He may be complicit too.

Pangolin

We need to give bats the benefit of our doubts. We need to embrace them as essential members of our ecosystems. Instead of the vigilante efforts of roost burning, culling, capture and yes, even slander on social media, we need to promote bats and all their glorious contributions.

Kartchner Caverns will continue to provide educational information on bats as part of their preservation of these essential mammals. Our Rangers will continue their efforts to keep the caverns a safe habitat for bats. Wearing masks while in our caves certainly protects humans but those masks may also be protecting bats. Can bats become infected with the virus that humans shed into an environment like the cave? We don’t know yet, which is why we think wearing masks may keep bats from becoming a reservoir for the virus.

We are working on a Bat Adoption ProgramMyotis velifer which will give everyone a chance to participate in bat preservation and education. Keep checking our website for updates. Meanwhile, show some compassion for your fellow mammal – love a bat today!

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