Researchers have discovered at least four new species of African leaf-nosed bats that are related to the horseshoe bats that host the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus.
Study lead author Bruce Patterson is the MacArthur Curator of Mammals at the Field Museum.
“With COVID-19, we have a virus that’s running amok in the human population. It originated in a horseshoe bat in China. There are 25 or 30 species of horseshoe bats in China, and no one can determine which one was involved. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about them and their relatives,” said Patterson.
The newly-identified bats have elaborate flaps of skin on their noses that are used as a radar to focus calls and detect prey. Leaf-nosed bats belong to the family Hipposideridae, which is located throughout Africa, Asia, and Australasia.
Like many bat species, the African Hipposideridae family members are poorly understood. This lack of knowledge can be dangerous. A better understanding of bats is needed to defend humans against the diseases they may carry.
Study co-author Terry Demos is a post-doctoral researcher in Patterson’s lab.
“None of these leaf-nosed bats carry a disease that’s problematic today, but we don’t know that that’s always going to be the case. And we don’t even know the number of species that exist,” said Demos.
The researchers teamed up with experts at Maasai Mara University and the National Museums of Kenya to investigate the distribution of leaf-nosed bats in Africa. The team conducted a genetic study based on museum specimens collected in various parts of Africa over the last few decades.
Some of the bats that were assumed to be common turned out to genetically distinct species. According to the researchers, these “cryptic species” look similar to established species, but their DNA provided evidence of different evolutionary histories.
The genetic analysis pinpointed at least four new and undescribed species of bats. Patterson and Demos said the discovery takes on special importance in the era of COVID-19. While the new species of bats did not play a role in the coronavirus pandemic, their sister family of horseshoe bats did.
The horseshoe bats transmitted the coronavirus to other mammals – possibly pangolins – which then spread the disease to humans.
Even though all animals carry viruses, it seems that bats are more capable of disease transmission to humans. The experts explained that this could be due to the social nature of bats, who live in colonies of up to 20 million.
“Because they huddle together and take care of each other, it doesn’t take long for a pathogen to get passed from one end of the colony to the other,” said Patterson.
Furthermore, bats are in outstanding physical condition because of their ability to fly.
“Flying is the most energetically expensive way to get around. If you skin a bat, it looks like Mighty Mouse, they have hardly any guts, they’re all shoulders and chest muscle. They’re incredible athletes,” said Patterson.
With their high metabolisms and strong immune systems, bats can harbor viruses without getting sick themselves.
The researchers said that while the new species are not tied to the spread of COVID-19, it is still important to study leaf-nosed bats to help prevent future outbreaks.
“Leaf-nosed bats carry coronaviruses – not the strain that’s affecting humans right now, but this is certainly not the last time a virus will be transmitted from a wild mammal to humans,” said Demos. “If we have better knowledge of what these bats are, we’ll be better prepared if that happens.”
The study is published in the journal ZooKeys.