Bat Diaries: Prologue

Slowly but surely, bit by bit, I'm going to invite you to make your your way through my field experience in Tanzania, wherein I teamed up with an amazing bunch of individuals to find out where the bats fly to.

Every evening come dusk (or a little before, truth be told), Eidolon helvum, also know as the straw-colored fruit bats, start swarming above their tree roosts like bees, imagine if you will, but bigger and spread higher and wider across the sky. They circle above you for what seems like an eternity, and then just as you start questioning the wisdom of standing under hundreds of flying bats (and their droppings, but that's when PPE comes into play right?), they spread out and make their way towards lands unknown for yet another night of foraging. No one knows where they are going, just that they go somewhere. No one who sees bats flying around knows where they are coming from, just that they come from somewhere. That's where we stepped in, and decided to unearth us some bat traveling secrets.

And so, the Bat Diaries will chronicle my journey to Morogoro, Udekwa, and Illovo, three vastly different places in Tanzania united by the warmth of the local people, beautiful landscapes, and delicious ugali. Three places where the VISHA team braves the elements of the capricous seasons, to sample bats so we know more about what viruses they're shedding, and when they're more likely to shed them. Except this time, I was lucky enough to tag along with the team, and get to do some bat tracking!

Photo by Nistara Randhawa

Photo by Nistara Randhawa

Did I mention only straw-colored fruit bats above? Well, we also sampled the Egyptian fruit bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus), like the adorable mom bat pictured here.

Batmen at Chita

HALI's now famous Dr. Popo (Zikankuba Sijali, the bat doctor), Chris Kilonzo, and our newly minted One Health Officer, Alphonce Msigwa have been hard at work scoping sites and sampling wildlife as part of HALI's zoonotic disease investigations for our PREDICT and viral sharing between human and animal populations projects.  They've been sending us field updates on a pretty regular basis over WhatsApp, which is proving to be a great tool for real-time situational awareness. Plus with that hardcore encryption it even passes HIPAA standards so is certified secure for protecting the privacy of our stakeholders and research participants.  

One of the team's latest updates came from Chita, a small village in the Udzungwa Mountains area of Tanzania where our team has been working with a local health clinic to sample patients with febrile illnesses to find out if there are fevers of unknown origin that may be zoonotic and potentially caused by viruses transmitted by wildlife like bats that often roost in people's homes or from monkeys in local forests where people frequently go to hunt, gather, and spend time. Who doesn't love a forest?  

I scraped the pics in this slideshow from our WhatsApp feed and added Zika's captions along with a few of my own for clarity to highlight one day in the life of this bat sampling crew, this time working in a village setting targeting micro bats that roost in the roofs of homes and prove to be quite a nuisance for the Chita residents. Thanks to Zika and our One Health Officer's efforts, the HALI team has been doing a good job sticking up for bats and promoting conservation for the ecosystem services they provide (eating insects and mosquitoes a huge one in an endemic malaria zone). But there is certainly a lot of work to be done to mitigate the risks for disease transmission, even some easy fixes like low cost improvements to homes to prevent the bats from moving in and taking up residence by adding screens and repairing ceiling panels. But low cost is not no cost, so until there is a Chita Champion the HALI team will keep working with the community on zoonotic disease outreach and prevention ideas.

 

Into the Magombelema Cave (PHOTOS)

The bat cave. A dark, mysterious abyss and portal to another world beyond the reach of the sun where minerals grow and the floor and ceiling are alive with sound and movement. Caves are fascinating, holding the promise of discovery, and not just for adventurers and spelunkers. 

Recently, disease ecologists have been exploring caves for viral discovery, sampling cave-dwelling bats to learn more about their viro-diversity as well as their potential to act as reservoirs for dangerous diseases like Ebola and Marburg virus. At Python Cave in Uganda where tourists acquired Marburg virus infection, for example, a team from the CDC sampled a large population of fruit bats suspected as hosts. They detected Marburg, and learned a lot about the dynamics of viral shedding among bats in the colony to better understand risks for exposure and infection.

This month HALI's own "Team Popo" (the Bat Team) ventured into the Udzungwa mountains to do some cave explorations of our own as part of the Viral Sharing (VISHA) project. Led by Dr. Popo himself (Zikankuba Sijali), the team geared up and headed off to the Magombelema Cave, a new site where they first worked to characterize the area and learn from people in the communities about their interactions with bats and other wildlife.

Wearing Tyvek suits with hoods, googles, and N-95 respirators to protect themselves from exposure to any potentially dangerous pathogens, Team Popo navigated through Magombelema's chambers and identified some great locations to place mist nets. Bats were safely captured and released, and samples collected and preserved in liquid nitrogen for our lab team at Sokoine University, who will screen the samples for the presence of viral RNA. Many of the bats had already migrated to other areas (seasonal migration is common for fruit bats), so Team Popo learned from local villagers about the best times of year to return the the Magombelema area when bats are most abundant for future capture and sampling work.

HALI's VISHA project is working to understand viral sharing between animals like bats and non-human primates and people in the Udzungwa area along with potential risk factors associated with viral spillover and spread.

Photos by the HALI Team / Introduction by David Wolking. 

PREDICT’s Ethiopia Team Learns Bat Sampling in Tanzania

In East Africa, HALI is helping partners from Addis Ababa University, the implementing partner for the PREDICT project in Ethiopia, learn safe capture and sampling of bats as part of a growing network of African scientists working to improve detection and prevention of emerging pandemic threats. The slideshow below gives a great look at the training: 

The PREDICT Ethiopia team met Zikankuba Sijalia, HALI's PREDICT project coordinator, at a recent global meeting and plans were made to bring the Ethiopian team to Tanzania to learn from Dr. Popo himself (the bat doctor, Zika's superhero name), who is quickly becoming one of the premier bat experts in the East Africa region. 

HALI's project scientist Chris Kilonzo took some amazing photos of the first day of training, conducted in Morogoro, Tanzania at a fruit bat roosting site in trees near the campus of Sokoine University, one of the sites the team is surveying as part of HALI's Viral Sharing project.

The team will continue to work with their new Ethiopian friends on bat and non-human primate sampling in the Udzungwa Mountains over the next few weeks. According to the HALI team, the Ethiopian scientists are a quick study and after only a few days in Tanzania are already mastering the skills and techniques for bat surveillance. Back home in Ethiopia, the Addis Ababa team will use these newly acquired skills in surveillance activities targeting bats as potential hosts for MERS Coronavirus and other potentially zoonotic viruses. 

Look out for more news on Dr. Popo and the HALI team soon as field activities ramp up!

Photos by Chris Kilonzo. Story by David Wolking. 

I want my mummy!

It's Halloween and we all want our mummies.  Thankfully Nick Brandt comes to the rescue with some amazingly appropriate content.  

Our PREDICT team especially likes this mummified fruit bat.

Our PREDICT team especially likes this mummified fruit bat.

In northern Tanzania, Lake Natron beckons wild birds and bats to their deaths by using the lakes reflective surface as a visual attractant.  The animals crash into the lake's surface and the water's chemical content, extremely high in soda and salts, calcifies their carcasses, preserving them as they wash ashore.

Nick, a talented photographer,  walked the shores of Lake Natron collecting the carcasses and then posed them in the landscape as if they were brought back to life; the Evil Dead, or more realistically, dead souls come to haunt the living or spirits warning us about the Lake's dark powers.

Check out more of Nick's work in his new book Across the Ravaged Land... 

Images by ©Nick Brandt via Gizmodo. 

A Special Journey...

- David Wolking

Today Dr. Liz Vanwormer is returning from Tanzania.  Liz has been working with the HALI team on PREDICT, and is leading a project investigating pathogen transmission between bats, monkeys, and people in the Udzungwa Mountains National Park and surrounding areas.  That's a pretty special project, and we'll learn more about it as it develops, but it's not our main focus.   

Our main focus today is bat poop.  Why?  Because we spend a lot of time and money collecting it.  We find bats, we sample them, collect their poop, put it in vials with a special preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.  If the bats don't have poop, we swab them, using a very small tipped swab and yes, we lubricate the tip.  We are not sadists.  All of these poop and fecal swab samples are taken to our lab in Morogoro where our technician Ruth uses a special protocol to extract RNA from the poop.  Once we have the RNA, we use it to synthesize complementary DNA (cDNA), then we freeze that cDNA and use it to run our viral family screening tests to look for genetic evidence of viruses.  You can find a lot of viruses in bat poop.  

So, Dr. Liz is traveling with some special luggage - a liquid nitrogen charged dry shipper full of cDNA from bat poop.  It's pretty amazing that genetic material from bat shit collected deep in Tanzania's Southern Highlands will have traveled to Morogoro, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, London, San Francisco, Napa, and finally to our UC Davis One Health lab.  Too bad it can't rack up frequent flyer miles....

To learn more about the PREDICT project, check out their homepage. 

To help HALI support our research activities in Tanzania, consider a donation... 

 

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....

 

 

Secrets of the Batcave...

Most bat caves have more bats than toys... 

- David Wolking

The caves were interesting, full of bats. At this chamber you could just hear all the bats surrounding you and when the guide point to the inside of the chamber you could see hundreds of bats just flying around. - Melvin (a tourist in Tanzania at the Amboni Caves, Tanga Region)

 Cave tourism sounds like a great time.  You shimmy down through a limestone tunnel into a large cavern in the dark, headlamps shining sporadically on stalactites and casting eery shadows, the echo of your voice and of dripping water, and the chirping of cave bats.  Cave tourism also means big business.  Mammoth Cave National Park  generates an estimated $64 million for the south central Kentucky area each year.

But cave tourism also presents certain risks.  Beyond the fear of headlamps dying out leaving you in the dark bowels of the earth without Batman's utility belt and his famous nightvision Bat-goggles, there is the risk of disease both to you and to those happily chirping and roosting bats.

If you somehow missed the plethora of news reports, White-nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungus infecting bats and causing them to awake more often during hibernation, has been associated with the deaths of 5-6 million North American bats.  The rapid spread of WNS and uncertainty about its spread and transmission has lead the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare a moratorium on caving activities in affected regions, as it is suspected that the fungus is transported through soil via clothing and boots of cavers.

But bats are not the only ones that can get sick when hanging out with people in caves.  We know bats harbor a lot of disease causing organisms, including viruses like rabies, Marburg, and coronaviruses like SARS, and people visiting caves have been infected and in some cases even died from these viruses.

Caves are fascinating ecosystems, and cave-dwelling bats live in amazingly social, interesting colonies.  A recent article in PLOS Pathogens describes the behavioral characteristics of Egytian fruit bats in Python Cave, Uganda, a popular cave tourist destination associated with recent Marburg virus outbreaks.  In Python, the fruit bats compete for roosting space in the cave, with juvenile sub-adult bats dwelling in less secure locations in tight clusters near the floors and cave entrance, locations with higher risk of predation (it is after all Python Cave), and where they get shit on.  Literally.  Roosting near the floor of the cave means all your relatives and elders above urinate and defecate on your head, a risk factor for viral exposure the researchers speculate is linked to seasonal pulses of Marburg virus circulation in this sub-adult demographic.  So, to make a long story short, all that guano cave tourists are trudging through could be infectious, it could make you sick.

I stress that it could make you sick because in a lot of cases we don't really know.  Even in the Python Cave study, the researchers were unable to detect Marburg virus in the bat guano.   But we do know people visiting caves, or working in mines or abandoned mine shafts have gotten sick from viruses linked to bats in the past, and have died.  The risk is there.  Cave tourists beware.

What does this have to do with HALI?   

 "We went caving at the Amboni caves (home to more bats than I would have liked!)" - Christine

 "We went caving at the Amboni caves (home to more bats than I would have liked!)" - Christine

Our PREDICT project field team is in northern Tanzania this month capturing bats and rodents at high-risk human-wildlife contact interfaces, like the cave tourism context, where people might get sick from wild animals.  One of the places they are visiting is the Amboni Caves, where our friend Melvin (quoted above) saw so many bats.   Amboni is a popular tourist destination and the largest cave system in East Africa.  Lonely Planet even advises cave visitors to "wear closed toed shoes to avoid picking bat droppings off your feet."  Nice - some inadvertent disease risk prevention advice from the travel gurus! 

We hope to capture and sample some of the Amboni cave bats and investigate them for viruses that may be harmful to people.  By looking at bat feces (and other samples), we can determine if there are infectious disease risks to cave visitors and other high-risk groups like the cave guides.  If Zika brought his utility belt, we may even get some good pictures from Amboni to share, so tune in soon, "same bat-time, same bat-channel..."