Home Biological science Studying vampire bats to predict the next pandemic

Studying vampire bats to predict the next pandemic


Courtesy/Virginia Tech


In June, Virginia Tech assistant professor Luis Escobar led a team of students to the Andes and lowlands of Colombia to understand how vampire bats can help predict and prevent the next big epidemic.

Escobar is an expert in assessing how diseases respond to climate and landscape change in the College of Natural Resources and Environment Fish and Wildlife Conservation Department. With a $358,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), his latest project examines how vampire bats carrying the rabies virus can help scientists predict areas where wildlife virus transmission could occur in years to come.

The study documents in depth how the confluence of geography, population characteristics and climate change affects the spread of infectious diseases from bats to other species and offers new models to predict when and where such events occur. overflow will occur. The findings could shed light on environmental conditions that increase the likelihood of transmission of rabies as well as other diseases transmitted from animals to humans, such as coronavirus and Ebola virus.

Colombia’s varied climate and topography – from the cold, arid highlands of the Andes to the hot, humid lowlands and coastal areas – provide the perfect setting for such research.

“Climate change and rising temperatures increase the risk of the spread of infectious diseases,” Escobar said. “Colombia offers an excellent system to see the effects of extreme temperatures up close without having to wait for climate change to occur. We monitor large areas and different climates and altitudes to create a global study of the factors driving the geography of overflows to answer the question: Can we predict overflows in spatial areas? »

Vampire bats are ideal wild hosts for studying disease transmission. They are a frequent source of the spread of pathogens in Latin America, where livestock deaths from the rabies virus are common. As bats and bat-borne infections advance further north due to warming temperatures, vampire bat rabies poses a significant threat to livestock, livestock and other animals in the southern United States.

“Many disease-causing pathogens come from bats, which can infect a wide range of species, from carnivores to livestock and humans,” Escobar said. “We have learned many lessons about the disease from rabies, which makes rabies an excellent model for understanding how ongoing climate change may trigger the next pandemic. If we can get a good idea of ​​how environmental conditions – landscape, temperature, rain, urbanization – increase or decrease disease transmission, we can better understand how pathogens cross species lineages to spread in the public and cause epidemics and even pandemics like COVID-19[FEMININE”[FEMININE”

As the study’s principal investigator, Escobar, who is a faculty member affiliated with the Global Change Center and the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens, conducts all field research in addition to general project supervision and management.

Courtesy/Virginia Tech

His colleague, Professor Eric Hallerman of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, will conduct a population genetic assessment from the vampire bat samples. He will also examine the relationships between different populations of vampire bats to determine whether they share genes or have independent colonies, which can help the team better understand transmission processes.

Co-Principal Investigator Lawrence Childs, associate professor of mathematics at college of science, will bring together different data models, creating a mathematical modeling framework to reconstruct and help project future overflow events.

Virginia Tech scientists are partnering in this effort with senior scientists from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, La Salle University in Colombia, and officials from the Colombian ministries of health and agriculture.

Students find the chance to excel in fieldwork

To collect the first field data in June, Escobar assembled and trained a team of Virginia Tech students, including one graduate student and three undergraduate students. The team, joined by students from four Colombian universities, visited four sites with different altitudes, temperatures and ecological conditions to trap and sample more than 250 vampire bats.

Working at night, when bats are most active, they caught bats in large rectangular mist nets in forests and farmlands. They also learned to descend into caves wearing biohazard suits, gloves and masks to catch bats during the day. The bats were placed in bags and taken back to a mobile lab, where Escobar and the students identified the species, measured them, took blood samples, tagged them, and gave them a water solution. sweetened before releasing them.

The opportunity to gain hands-on research and fieldwork experience is a priority for the college. Students studying in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation must complete an experiential learning experience before graduation; one option to fulfill this requirement is undergraduate research.

The college and department also value inclusion and opportunity, and Escobar specifically encouraged applications from students from backgrounds that are underrepresented and underserved in disease ecology.

Dyess Harp, of Berryville, Va., who graduated with a degree in fish and wildlife conservation in June, said the experience confirmed her interest in pursuing a master’s degree in the field.

“The opportunity to gain hands-on experience with biodiversity, disease and bat ecology, and to be part of such a multicultural and supportive team was a dream come true,” Harp said. “For me, that was a really encouraging thing because queer people, especially transgender people, have never been included in field research trips of this magnitude.”

Quan Dong, a senior from Annandale, Va., who majored in wildlife conservation and biological sciences, called it “a trip of a lifetime.”

Courtesy/Virginia Tech

“It was by far my best college experience to date,” he said. “Fieldwork is a unique experience that can’t really be replicated any other way. I was able to learn skills related to the physical aspects of fieldwork, such as techniques for setting up a mist net and pacing for a day hike through the mountains. I was also able to learn how to be an effective researcher, provide critical feedback, and collaborate with others. I expect these skills to stay with me throughout my life and help spur a successful career in wildlife conservation.

Dong also formulated his own separate research project on bat acoustics and echolocation activity. He has recorded bat vocalizations and is currently studying the unique and common languages ​​of vampire bats in various regions.

Escobar and a new group of students will return next year to collect more samples and complete the study. In the meantime, the team is analyzing a century of historical data from Latin America, looking for patterns of climate change and rabies spread that could be useful in predicting future transmission events.

“Students studying wildlife conservation at the College of Natural Resources and Environment have a unique opportunity to not only get mud on their boots, but also work with the CDC and other health agencies. who study wildlife diseases,” Escobar said. “Through projects like this, we are filling a critical niche: the empirical study of the effects of climate change on disease emergence.

“Student success is central to our department and gaining research experience in new settings and with pressing environmental issues is a great way for students to flesh out their CVs and ensure their success as they go. are moving beyond Virginia Tech,” said Joel Snodgrass, Dept. director and professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “Dr. Escobar’s work represents such an opportunity and clearly demonstrates the benefits to our students of a diverse faculty and student body.