Bat wee and tarpaulins!

Louise Gibson

Project Coordinator and Research Technician Louise Gibson and Wildlife Veterinarian Rosa Jolma describe their research and fieldwork experiences in Ghana.

straw-coloured fruit bat hangs upside downThe 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.  

Tarpaulins for sale in Ghana

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! 

Louise and Rosa with Ghanaian colleagues, wearing white protective outfits, goggles and face masks.

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.  

Find out more about the Bats & Bugs Project

Straw-Coloured Fruit Bat (Eidolon Helvum)

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