The Bats & Bugs project is a collaboration between the University of Ghana, the Institute of Zoology (ZSL), the University of Cambridge and other wildife conservation, veterinary and virology institutions, with the aim of improving our knowledge of how viruses persist in their natural bat populations and what the risk factors are for spillover into other species, including human beings.
The research colony
Over 11 years ago the Bats and Bugs project set up a research bat colony in the grounds of Ghana’s Accra Zoo to study a native species of bat and the viruses they host. The straw-coloured fruit bat (Eidolon helvum) lives across sub-Saharan Africa. Their ability to fly long distances and tendency to live in large social groups makes tracking individuals over a long period extremely difficult (early studies found recapturing the same individual nearly impossible - it was like finding a needle in a haystack!) Hence the colony was established.
The research colony was founded with 77 bats. Since then, they have been breeding in captivity and now total around 180 bats. They live in a large enclosure with double mesh walls, meaning they experience the same natural environment while staying physically separated from any wild bats.
Clues to finding viruses
Since the colony was founded, we have been monitoring and blood sampling the bats at various intervals. By looking at the antibodies in their blood we can get a glimpse into their immunity and see what types of viruses they have encountered. Bats tend to harbour many viruses without becoming sick themselves, but we still don’t fully understand how they do this.
By studying the research colony, we have observed that bats born in captivity receive antibodies against paramyxoviruses (a group of RNA viruses that includes those which cause mumps and measles in humans) from their mothers. After several months, that immunity wanes and we then see another spike in antibody production. That spike indicates that the bats have encountered a virus or viruses belonging to the paramyxovirus family.
What we wanted to do next, was to identify the viruses that are present and have been circulating within in the research colony since its establishment. We also wanted to better understand when the bats are shedding these viruses (shedding is when a virus is excreted by the host into the environment e.g. through faeces or wee) in order to better understand spillover risks, as some bat paramyxoviruses can also infect other species.
Virus hunting and shopping
To find the paramyxoviruses, we had to go shopping! Though we take supplies with us when we travel to Ghana, we can only take so much, and veterinary and laboratory items take priority. Everything else we buy in country. One of the main components required for this research was tarpaulins. There is no one-stop-shop for DIY equipment but our knowledgeable Ghanaian colleagues found some local tarpaulin specialists (above). We waited while they cut, sewed and added all the eyelets to our sheets.
After getting the tarpaulin sheets, we cleaned them, and got dressed in our PPE (personal protective equipment) to enter the bat enclosure. This consists of a Tyvek suit, face mask, goggles and shoe covers. We suspended tarpaulins under the roosting areas of the bats to catch any urine, whilst avoiding contamination from dirt on the ground. Collecting urine this way is non-invasive, which means we don’t risk stressing the bats with handling, but we need to avoid any poo (which can contaminate the urine). So we used syringes to collect the urine that had accumulated on the tarpaulins, while avoiding any pools that contained droppings!
The urine was then transported to the Institute of Zoology for analysis. Using a variety of molecular methods we found multiple paramyxovirus RNA sequences; some of which had been reported before from African wild bats and some of which were completely new. By using genetic analysis software, we were able to create phylogenetic trees to visualise how the viruses relate to one another. This showed that the multiple paramyxoviruses found in the research colony were classified into four genera: Orthorubulavirus, Pararubulavirus, Henipavirus and other unclassified bat paramyxoviruses.
It is likely that the 77 founder bats from over 10 years ago brought these viruses with them, and they have been circulating within the research colony ever since. What is most fascinating, is that previous studies estimate that thousands of individuals are required for paramyxoviruses to persistently circulate within a population, but our research has shown that not all paramyxoviruses require such large populations.
By collecting weekly urine samples in this way over one year, we have also found further paramyxovirus RNA sequences. The viruses detected have a bi-annual shedding pattern, meaning that paramyxovirus RNA does not appear in the urine evenly throughout the year, although different viruses appear to have different shedding patterns, with some being shed more regularly than others. This helps in estimating when it is most important for humans and livestock to avoid contact with bats and their wee.
Select a blog
Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.
At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions.
A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.
Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!
We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.
From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.
A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.
Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.
Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.
The Chagos archipelago is a rare haven for marine biodiversity. Hear from the team about our projects to protect the environments in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.
An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.