Bat biologists love Dan Feller gets excited every year for the summer fieldwork season, a time to get out of the office and go into the forest in search of their quarry – in this case, the 10 species that are found in the mountains and Maryland wood. Bats are most active in the summer, as this is their breeding season and this is when their insect prey is most abundant.

But this summer is a little different. Instead of capturing bats with ultra-fine nets or special traps (don’t worry, they aren’t harmed), Feller and many of his colleagues across the country count them remotely with acoustic devices that record their bats. sonar calls. This is because of the risk that humans can transmit the coronavirus to bats.

It may sound strange, but bats now need protection from human. Yes, it’s true that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that circled the globe likely emerged from bats in China before jumping onto another animal and then onto humans, a process called spillover. But humans can also transmit viruses to animals; this is called going back.

In Maryland, researchers like Feller are taking precautions to prevent viral transmission in both directions. “We’re taking a conservative approach and we’re not managing them anymore,” says Feller, who has conducted annual bat surveys in Maryland since 1990. “We reassessed some of the research projects that we had lined up. We have changed the techniques for the year until we have more information.

Feller and others will count bats this summer with devices that record the acoustic signals animals use to navigate in flight, but they won’t check them directly for signs of white nose syndrome, a devastating disease that has wiped out bat populations by more than 90 percent since its onset in four caves near Albany, New York, where he killed more than 10,000 bats in 2007 alone.

Officials from the US Geological Survey and the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued new guidelines for biologists like Feller, recommending that they wear protective equipment such as masks and respirators to reduce the risk of the spread of the disease. viruses when they come into or do so in close contact with bats. research in caves where many animals hibernate during the winter.

“We treat bats like we treat the human community,” says Kristina Smucker, non-game office manager at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, where she oversees permits for researchers who study animals that are not hunted. . “We will be using personal protective equipment to keep the bats safe. That means wearing an N95 mask, gloves, taking your temperature, and not doing the job if you’ve tested positive or you’re not feeling well. “

Federal agencies released the guidelines after consulting with experts in wildlife health and virology over the past year. The guidelines also included data from two previous experiments in which researchers exposed bats to the coronavirus. In the first study, published in December, a team of scientists from the USGS, University of Wisconsin and Louisiana State University discovered that the big brown bat (Epstesicus fuscus), one of the most common in the United States, was resistant to infection with the virus. A separate study by German researchers in 2020 found that Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus), which are common in the Mediterranean, Europe and North Africa, were somewhat susceptible to the virus.

The USGS study assessed the likelihood of U.S. scientists and wildlife managers transmitting the coronavirus to bats, and found that fewer than 2 in 1,000 bats would likely be infected if left unchecked. was not taken. The 32-page study was published in May on bioRxiv preprint server and has not yet received peer review or been accepted for publication in a journal.

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