Strange but True - Bats on Trains!

-David Wolking

As a kid I used to read the Strange but True books.  They were terrible, but did inspire imagination and a sense of the mysterious in everyday life.  Sometimes on our weekly Skype calls a sense of the Strange but True creeps into the conversation.

Last Friday, Zika was leading our PREDICT surveillance team on a trip to sample bat colonies in Nunge, Kilombero, and Ifakara.  The fruit bats at Kilombero and Ifakara had since migrated away  (likely to the coast where it is warmer), but the team found insectivorous bats at a major train station in the area and went to work.

On the Skype call, all I could think about was bats on trains, and maybe a terrible sequel to Snakes on a Plane with Samuel Jackson fighting off vampire bats as a train rushed over rusty rails to certain demise in the Amazon.   But alas, not to be.  Zika told us the bats aren't on the trains, they're in the train station.  I've never seen a train in Tanzania, less a train station, so I'm imagining a concrete block version of Grand Central Station painted Chama Cha Mapinduzi green and yellow with vendors selling delicacies like BBQ corn or roasted mice, and the station master dangling a gold pocket watch waiting for the big diesel to roll on in, on time of course.  That would've been strange but not so true.  Luckily Zika shared a few pictures today to clear things up.

Bats in Train stations!  Not as sexy, but just as relevant from a wildlife disease surveillance perspective.  Train stations are full of people, bats live in the station, and right there you have what we call an interface, or point of contact between people and wildlife where disease transmission might occur.  Transmission can happen a number of ways, directly through a bite (not likely in this case - these are not vampire bats), or indirectly through exposure to bat saliva, feces, or urine.  Think about it.  You have this great job as a cleaner for the train station - steady income in a rural area in Africa, as long as that train keeps running, people keep buying tickets, and you keep sweeping.  Problem is, these bats poop all over the floor.  By the time you get there the guano sweeps up easily enough, but the sweeping and breeze make dust, and you may be breathing in aerosolized pathogens from bat feces.  Plus, train station sweepers probably don't have health care, so if they get sick, it's all about the immune system.  That's a hypothetical situation,  but when we run tests to see what viruses these bats in the train station might be carrying, we will probably use fecal samples as most likely for disease transmission to humans and other animals.

One more Strange but True for today - did you know that my university (University of California) and the military experimented with wild caught bats for use as bombers in World War II?  Neither did I, and probably for a reason.  What a disaster.  Some ideas, like hooking incendiary explosives through the chest skin on a Mexican free-tailed bat, should be left unspoken.  They actually thought weaponized bats would be more effective than conventional or atomic explosives in ending the conflict in the Pacific:

"Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles in diameter for every bomb dropped... Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life."

Keep dreaming, and redefine loss of life.  That program must have killed 100s of thousands of bats.  Way to go UC.  Strange but true....