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.