Researchers at Tel Aviv University’s Bat Lab attempt to rehabilitate winged creature’s much-maligned public image
https://www.jpost.com/-By MAYA MARGIT/THE MEDIA LINE
Egyptian fruit bats were the subject of a study by Tel Aviv University researchers.(photo credit: YUVAL BARKAI/TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
The bat shivered in fear as it hung precariously from Maya Weinberg’s gloved hand.
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“His name is Zorro and he is less than a year old,” said Weinberg, a veterinary doctor and PhD candidate at Prof. Yossi Yovel’s Bat Lab.
Located in Tel Aviv University’s I. Meier Segals Garden for Zoological Research, the Bat Lab hosts an eclectic range of Israeli biologists that specialize in groundbreaking research.
As biologists, a cameraman and others crowded around to get a better look, Zorro’s trembling grew more violent. Weinberg gingerly put him back into the welcoming dark confines of a small carrier sitting on the nearby counter, away from prying eyes and the laboratory’s bright neon lights.
At the Bat Lab, Israel’s real-life Bat-men (and Bat-women) conduct research into a wide variety of bats, the only mammals capable of flying.
There are more than 1,400 species of bats worldwide; most are nocturnal and rarely come into contact with humans. Some are beneficial to their environments, since they eat a lot of insects and even help to disperse seeds and pollinate flowers.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic these unique winged creatures’ public image has taken a massive hit. So far scientists have not been able to find any evidence linking bats to the virus, but the connection has proven to be nearly impossible to dispel.
“Up until now there is no evidence to show a connection between bats and COVID-19,” Weinberg told The Media Line. “This idea bordered on conspiracy.”
“The way in which the scientific community echoed this theory was simply outrageous,” she argued. “It has done great damage to bats around the world, especially in China, where it damaged public perception of bats, which was already poor to begin with.”
A recent study led by Weinberg and Tel Aviv University postdoctoral researcher Dr. Kelsey Moreno could have far-reaching implications for discovering the origins of COVID-19. The study, which was recently published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science, found that sick bats maintain social distancing, possibly to prevent the spread of mass contagion in their colonies.
In order to observe their behavior, researchers monitored two colonies of Egyptian fruit bats: one living in captivity in an enclosure and the other living in its natural environment. Researchers injected a bacteria-like protein into several bats in each colony, which simulated an immune response that generated symptoms of illness.
“We were very surprised to see that sick bats actively social distance,” Weinberg said. “We thought that the group would be the one to stay away from the sick bats – but instead it was the sick bats that actively stayed away from others in the colony. This is really not a typical behavior for a wild animal, which will generally attempt to hide its illness.”
Though the origins of COVID-19 virus remain a mystery, some have speculated that a scientist in China who was studying coronaviruses in Wuhan may have leaked the strain, thereby causing a worldwide outbreak. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is notably located near the outbreak’s earliest known epicenter, but Beijing has vociferously denied this theory.
However, Weinberg believes it is possible that a scientist who ventured deep into China’s wild to collect virus samples may have unwittingly unleashed it.
“As long as we maintain distance from bats and allow them to remain in their secluded natural habitats … then we won’t expose ourselves to pathogens for which we have no defense,” she stressed.
Other biologists at the Bat Lab are examining the biomechanics of bats, including their use of echolocation and sonar beams.
Doctoral candidate Ofri Eitan and his team are conducting behavioral experiments with bats inside an anechoic chamber, a room that is designed to absorb reflections of sound.
“In this flight room we use two methods that can help us understand the sensory behavior of bats,” Eitan told The Media Line. “These two techniques are motion tracking and the recording of the echolocation of bats.”
The room is fitted with 50 ultrasonic microphones and a system that tracks the bat’s motion as it flies. The goal is to observe the animal’s sensory behavior and gain a deeper understanding of how bats perceive their environments.
Eitan echoed Weinberg and stressed that bats were not connected to the pandemic.
“We’re trying to educate people and to show [them] that bats are much more incredible creatures than they thought,” he said.
Adi Rachum, who is studying for a master’s degree, is in charge of the Bat Lab’s imprinted colony, where dozens of fruit bats come and go as they please. Rachum and other students regularly feed the bats fresh fruit, providing them with an incentive to keep returning.
The room is dark, humid and resembles a cave. The goal is to mimic the animals’ natural environment as closely as possible while also allowing scientists to conduct research.
There are several cameras spread throughout the cave, including a live feed that is accessible online 24/7.
“I put a chip on every bat that we release,” Rachum told The Media Line as she held a bat up for inspection. “It doesn’t hurt them and it helps us to definitively identify them, which in turn helps with our research.”
Weinberg, a doctor of veterinary medicine who has specialized in bats for the past 12 years, hopes that the lab’s ongoing, pioneering research will eventually help to convince people that the winged creatures are not to be feared.
“They’re a very gentle, sociable and communicative animal,” she said. “I worked with many different animals before arriving at bats. When you see how unique they are and learn the facts, then you look at them differently.”