Bats and Ebola

For more than 10 years, throughout Ebola “hot spots” in Africa, WCS researchers have been monitoring Ebola and disease outbreaks, conducting research in Ebola virus ecology, and teaching Ebola prevention awareness in at-risk communities. The number of humans and endangered gorillas killed by outbreaks of this virus in recent years is estimated in the tens of thousands. In the majority of cases, humans have contracted the Ebola virus after coming in contact with infected wildlife, such as bats or great apes obtained for food.    

Recent decades have seen an increase in outbreaks of zoonotic viral pathogens in West, Central and East Africa, illustrating the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the natural ecology of Ebola virus in the still undefined wildlife reservoir.  

In response to a May 2018 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), near the border of Republic of Congo (ROC), the ROC Ministry of Health launched an initiative to strengthen outbreak preparedness in the country. WCS Congo Wildlife Health Program’s (WHP) outreach work with rural hunters and their wildlife mortality surveillance activities are acknowledged as a key element of the national Ebola outbreak preparedness plan, with the potential for early detection of Ebola virus spillovers that often precede human outbreaks. 

WCS Congo WHP joined researchers from United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) and ROC National Public Health Laboratory in a joint ecological investigation along the Congo River, bordering the geographic region in DRC where the Ebola outbreak was first reported. The joint team sampled 182 Angolan free-tailed bats (Mops condylurus). A potential vector species of Ebola Virus, Mops sp. were implicated as a potential source for the index case in 2013-2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. 

This mission was part of a long-term NIH-WCS collaboration aiming to establish the role of multiple animal species in maintenance of Ebola virus in wildlife and determine factors which increase likelihood of Ebola virus spillover into human populations. As part of this program, WCS is also working on a study of the hammer-headed fruit bat to assess the potential of this species as a reservoir for the Ebola virus. The Hammer-headed bat is the largest bat in Africa, feeding on fruit in the forest at night, where the males’ strange, honking cries can be heard in the forest canopy. WCS Health Programs' scientists are trying to learn how viral shedding is influenced by environmental and behavioral characteristics. This information will be critical in understanding how bats might pass the virus on to other species, and thus how the spread of Ebola might be contained. 

Listen to a Male Hammer-headed fruit bat calling out to attract a female mate......

In April 2018, Dr. Sarah Olson teamed up with WCS Congo WHP staff and NIH collaborators to pilot a solar-powered tracking unit that collects GPS and movement data from hammer-headed bats near Odzala-Kokoua National Park in northern Republic of Congo, a region that experienced multiple Ebola virus outbreaks over the last decade. Movement data, combined with virological test results provided by NIH, will be critical to understanding the ecology of the species and its role in the spillover of Ebola virus into great ape and human populations.  

Hammer headed bat with GPS tracker

Learn more about the incredible Hammer-headed fruit bat:

Wild View Blog: Hammer-headed Bat

Wild View Blog: Hammer-headed Bat Family

Photo credit of Dr Ondzie tracking fruit bats: Dr Sarah Olson, WCS

Photo credit for banner photo of hammer-headed bat and bat with tracker on back: Dr Sarah Olson, WCS 

Photo credit for thumbnail photo of hammer-headed bat: Dr Chris Walzer, WCS 

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