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The World Health Organization is expected to release a report on its investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in the coming days. Among the many theories is the unproven belief that it was passed on from bats — leading to much public fear of the mammals. But the growing threat to bats could mean bad news for us too. Special correspondent Catherine Rampell reports.
The World Health Organization is expected to release its report soon the origins of the coronavirus. Many researchers suspect the virus began in bats and somehow was passed to humans, adding to public fears around the winged creatures.
But the species is under threat, and that is not good news for humans.
Special correspondent and Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell has the story.
And a note:
Parts of this report were shot before the pandemic.
There's a P.R. push to help bats.
We're an easy target. People have bought into this: I'm dark. I'm brooding. I'm malevolent. I'm bad. Apparently, it's our fault.
And truth be told, bats could use all the help they can get.
Humans have long feared this spooky species. Today, things are much worse, since many blame bats for causing the pandemic. There's no hard proof that they did, but, around the world, bats have been subject to misguided, sometimes gruesome attacks.
How the virus that causes the COVID pandemic got into the human population is still under scientific investigation.
Biologist Winifred Frick:
Scapegoating bats is unjustified. And it also shifts the focus away from the real responsible party, which is ourselves and the way that we treat the planet.
She means not respecting boundaries between humans and wildlife. In fact, humans have been a bigger threat to bats than bats are to humans.
Over the past 15 years, millions of bats have disappeared from North America due to a fungus probably brought into caves by hikers. It causes a disease called white-nose syndrome.
It's like a really bad case of athlete's foot. So the fungus actually grows into their skin tissues, and that makes them wake up too frequently while they're trying to hibernate. And then there's nothing to eat during the winter. And so they starve to death before spring.
Hey, Rebecca, can you lower this one down more?
Pre-pandemic, we joined biologists at a park in Virginia as they captured bats to track the disease.
Ironically, we actually wear batting gloves for this, but they're baseball batting gloves.
Sam Freeze is a researcher at Virginia Tech. His friends call him Batman, but he also shares a name with the caped crusader's nemesis, Mr. Freeze.
The iceman cometh.
So, what do the bats think of you? Do they think you're a hero or a villain?
Oh, I'm sure they're just terrified for their life. They probably think I'm a big bad predator trying to eat them.
Back at the picnic tables, our bat underwent a thorough physical exam.
Wing score is zero.
Zero meaning no sign of scarring from white-nose syndrome.
Not all of her species are so lucky though. The northern long-eared bat is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
There are very few wildlife diseases that have affected so many species in such a short period of time.
Jeremy Coleman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
In certain locations, upwards of 90 percent or more of certain species are gone as a result of white-nose syndrome.
Because bats only produce one pup per year, it would take a long time to rebuild the population.
I have heard various estimates of 500 to 600 years.
So, in just over a decade, we have lost the same number of bats that it would take half-a-millennium to recover?
You might wonder why humans should care. There's the moral argument. As Earth's stewards, we have a duty to protect all creatures. Conservationists have also tried to win allies with economic appeals.
Our flying friends kind of work for us. Each night, they eat at least half their body weight in insects, including pests that attack crops.
The Farm at Sunnyside: This was one of our most prolific bat fields.
And what about right now?
Nick Lapham, a conservationist and philanthropist, owns an organic vegetable farm in Virginia. He bought it in 2006.
There were bats everywhere.
That year, white-nose syndrome was first discovered in Upstate New York. Soon, it hit bats in Virginia.
We went from having them ubiquitous on the landscape to really over the course of two summers virtually gone.
Lapham lost a valuable farmhand.
As an organic farm, we can't spray chemical pesticides. So, nature is our front-line defense against insect pests. The decline of bats, there are studies that suggest it could mean billions of dollars in losses to U.S. agriculture.
He and other farmers, like Michigan apple grower Steve Tennes, have scrambled to find other ways to control pests.
Insects is really our number one issue, because nobody wants a worm in their apple.
Without the bats around, he has to wing it. For the apple maggot, sticky red balls are put out in early summer.
And so this bug thinks, hey, here's a nice big red apple. It lands on it to lay its eggs, and then it never flies away.
The pyramid kind of mirrors the look of a tree trunk.
Then there's this contraption, which the snout beetle likes to climb.
Eventually, it goes into this removable trap and gets trapped up in here.
This is a pheromone.
Finally, sexy smells leave the codling moth too dazed and confused to mate.
Therefore, there's no eggs laid on the apples.
None of this comes cheap.
It does add up a lot. Bats by far are the most economical insect management device.
How do we value nature?
Environmental economist Eyal Frank tries to measure what exactly we lose when we lose a species.
How much is it worth for you to preserve polar bears or pandas or butterflies?
Why do we need to put a dollar value on a panda or a butterfly?
If we don't inform those policy discussions about what is the value of a species, we're essentially implicitly assuming a value of zero.
The sudden loss of bats, though, can show how nature adds value. First, in the year or so following white-nose syndrome's arrival in a county, farmers revenues plunge about 50 percent.
Because they have fewer products to sell and or they just have lower-quality product, and they receive a lower price for it.
Insurance claims for insect damage shoot up 30-fold. Then, like organic farmers, conventional farmers seem to adjust pest control strategies, and expenses go up.
There is a very big increase in insecticide use.
Which has downstream effects for human health.
Because they are toxic by design. And I find that indeed infant mortality rates go up. And I can mostly attribute that to the births that are conceived during the pesticide application season between April and July.
It's a butterfly effect of sorts. But instead of a butterfly flaps its wings, of course, it's bats not flapping theirs.
Other studies have estimated the harm to humans when whales, bees, sea stars, and other parts of the ecosystem disappear.
In the case of sea stars, the role that they play in supporting fisheries, in the case of bats, the role that they play in supporting agriculture, massive potential impacts for which we are really not prepared.
Some might worry this suggests a species with no documented economic contributions isn't worth saving. But that's not the right takeaway, says economist Frank. Ecosystems are complex and interconnected.
Imagine you get on a plane and you and you start unscrewing randomly screws here and there. How many can you take out before the plane stops getting you from destination A to B safely?
Biologist Frick agrees.
For too long, people have thought that conservation is sort of this altruistic exercise, when, really ,it is part and parcel to our species being able to persist on this planet.
One, two, three. There they go, back off into the forest to hunt for insects.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Catherine Rampell.
All right, good job, team.
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