Poor bats. The creatures have been getting a bit of a bad rap lately, primarily due to some initial discussion around whether or not they had something to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are still some experts out there standing up for the critters and emphasising that bats aren’t scary and are in fact, in need of our protection. One individual, who is working hard to help protect bats and their habitats, is 4Sight’s Senior Ecology Consultant and resident bat expert, Dr Hannah Dumbleton. Hannah recently spoke to Anna Casey-Cox from Go Eco on her podcast/radio show, ‘Earth Matters’, to talk about bats in NZ - here’s what Anna and Hannah had to say.
There are only three species of bats in New Zealand, and sadly, one of those species is already believed to be extinct. Hannah, who is based in our Waikato office, is in a prime location for bat spotting, seeing as Hamilton city is one of the few cities in New Zealand to still support a resident population of long-tailed bats (Pekapeka-tou-roa). A species that is unique to New Zealand and the only species found in Hamilton. Weighing in at around 10g and with chocolate brown fur, the Pekapeka are actually quite cute, and if you’re keen to get out there and spot one for yourself, they are best spotted at dusk emerging from gullies as they roost during the day.
These bats are protected and can be found throughout New Zealand in varying habitats. But unfortunately, they are still a threatened species due to the removal of trees, predation by pest mammals and increasing competition for roosts. They feed off insects like mosquitos and moths and are capable of long-distance flights, using waterways and forest edges for foraging. For this reason, the Waikato River is also known as the ‘bat highway’ – who knew!
But what’s the relationship to COVID-19? COVID-19 is not a new virus, and apparently, it’s been evolving with bats over the entire lifespan of the species. Scientists have always known that bats have the ability to transmit diseases to humans without compromising their own health and that their immune system, and bodies, have evolved to protect them from getting sick. However, transmission to a new species, including humans, can happen and can be deadly. Anna mentions that bats could have potentially transferred the virus to the animals found at that fateful wet market in China, where the transmission of Coronavirus to humans is believed to have occurred.
With wildlife trafficking and wildlife markets, we’ve created circumstances in our world that have allowed for viruses, which otherwise would not be known to cause any problems, to get into human populations. And as human populations increase, and we encroach further and further into the natural habitats of wildlife, we are becoming more and more responsible for the extinction of individual species. As Hannah notes, we are caretakers of this earth and need to be more mindful in creating spaces where we can co-exist with wildlife and nature (something Hannah thinks about on a daily basis!) and that this is the only way we can protect species from disappearing altogether.
There is some hope though. Working alongside Project Echo, an organisation who gather information on long-tailed bat distribution in Hamilton, Hannah is working to educate the public on how best to protect bats. Plus, inform them that bats aren’t scary (and our NZ bats won’t give you Coronavirus!), in order to ensure that this precious little critter sticks around for many more generations to come.
Interested in finding out more? You can listen to the full interview here, learn more about Dr Hannah Dumbleton here or visit our Ecology page on our website for more information on our areas of Ecology expertise.