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Beating Zika and Three Other Benefits of Bats

Bats are an integral part of our environment, and more than 50 different bat species live in America’s national parks. A bat’s diet of insects helps control the spread of disease and balances our ecosystem by helping plants flourish and forests spread. There are several organizations dedicated to educating the public on the good bats do.

Beating Zika 

The Zika virus made headlines in 2015 for its devastating effect on communities in Brazil, and research has continued since then into ways to fight it.

According to the Center for Disease Control, many people infected with Zika virus won’t experience symptoms or will suffer mild symptoms. Common symptoms of Zika include:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Headache
  • Joint pain
  • Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
  • Muscle pain

There is no specific medicine or vaccine for beating the Zika virus. Those infected are encouraged to treat symptoms, get plenty of rest and drink fluids to prevent dehydration.

So where do bats factor into controlling the spread of Zika?

One of the most common ways Zika spreads is through mosquito bites. Insects, particularly mosquitoes, are a staple of the bat’s diet. In fact, many species of bat are insectivorous, meaning they exclusively eat insects. The mosquito is a cornerstone to  diets of little brown bats (M. lucifugus), Brazilian free-tailed bats (T. brasiliensis) and northern yellow bats (L. intermedius), among others.

With bats gone, the population of disease-carrying mosquitoes could potentially explode, creating an outbreak of Zika that would be very difficult to manage.

Pollinating Plants and Helping Agriculture

Bats’ role as a pest controller helps benefit the agriculture industry, as well. By keeping the population of insects down, crops that would otherwise be destroyed and fed on are able to thrive. According to the National Park Service, bats add over $3 billion in pest control value across the U.S. The NPS compares the volume of insects eaten by a bat in a night to a human teenager eating 200 quarter pound hamburgers.

There are some species of bat that eat nectar, like the kind you’d find in the agave plant. Varieties of long-nosed or long-tongued bats native to some areas of national parkland in the American southwest are perfectly adapted to pollinating the blue agave plant, and help it to flourish, which allows us to make things like sweetener and tequila from the plants.

Bats also feed on the nectar and fruit of some nocturnally flowing plants, and have adapted specific biological features, like tube-shaped lips to get to the bottom of the bell-like flowers. As the bat feeds, it spreads pollen from flower to flower, thus ensuring the plant’s continued survival. Mango, banana, and peach plants are also helped via bat pollination.

Supporting the Growth of Cave Organisms

Most people know that bats are commonly found in caves, but they may not be aware of the ecosystem within those caves that depends on bats to thrive. The guano (or droppings) of bats is rich in nutrients. It supports communities of cave organisms that serve as food for other animals higher up the food chain, like amphibians and cave fish.

Lots of creatures native to caves can only survive in that environment, unable to go out into the world in search of their food. The guano of bats, as well as water from outside sources that flows through caves, bring in the nutrients required to continue cave life.

Seed Distribution and Reforestation 

Fruit bats help spread new fruit plants and trees by excreting seeds in their droppings in places far from the original tree. In the same way the bat benefits by getting food from the plant, the plant’s seeds spread over a much wider area than it could spread from the plant alone. The same nutrient-rich quality of bat guano that aids cave ecosystems also serves as a fertilizer for these seeds and foments their growth.

Bats may also help the rainforest to grow back after harmful deforestation, according to the Bat Conservation Trust. The tent-making bat, native to rainforest regions of central and southern America, gathers the large seeds of trees and other plants beneath tent-like structures that it makes as a place to roost, protecting them from harm and persevering them so they can grow new plant life.

Study Environmental Relationships

If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in Virginia Wesleyan University’s online program in Environmental Studies. Through our program, you’ll learn more about the relationship between animals, humans and the environment.

At Virginia Wesleyan University, you’ll learn the real-world skills necessary to aid in environmental conservation and be able to educate others, all on your time.