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Bats Give Blood In The Name Of Good Health

Cindy Spence

Dr. Darryl Heard (352) 392-4700

GAINESVILLE—Humans seem to think that blood and bats go hand in hand, and they do when it comes to University of Florida research.

But it’s the humans taking the blood from the bats.

It’s in the name of science, of course, and the fruit bats that offer awinged artery are helping their cousins, many of which are threatened or endangered, said UF researcher Darryl Heard, a specialist in wildlife and zoological medicine at UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“We want to identify disease problems that might affect these species in the wild and establish normal values for assessing their health,” Heard said.

By drawing the blood of healthy bats, Heard says researchers can establish normal levels for substances such as vitamins and proteins. That data then can be used by researchers in the field when they are surveying for nutritional problems and infectious diseases in bat populations.

The fruit bats with which Heard works are megabats, the giant cousins of the microbats that call the UF bat house home. He has been studying megabats since 1992 at the Lubee Foundation, a 120-acre bat conservation and research center north of Gainesville.

The research already has resulted in some breakthroughs. For example, in1993 and ’94, when a number of captive bats were discovered to be dying of heart disease, the problem was traced back to the diet they were fed. Researchers discovered the problem — a lack of vitamin E — by drawing and comparing the blood of sick bats and healthy bats.

With bat research still in its infancy, there is much more to be learned by studying the flying mammals, Heard said.

“Bats make up the second-largest mammalian order, but they haven’t been acharismatic animal in terms of drawing research funding until very recently. A lot of research in the conservation field goes to gorillas and other charismatic animals,” Heard said. “But animals that people don’t perceive to be ‘pretty’ in an anthropomorphic way are frequently neglected in terms of research, bats being a classic example of that.

“Fortunately, people have been finding that bats are a very important component of many ecosystems of the world.”

Old World fruit bats are found in Africa, Asia and the Indian Ocean islands. In the rain forests of those areas, the bats are critical to pollination and seed dispersal, which helps to maintain the diversity of rain forest plants.

The bats are threatened by habitat destruction in many areas, and in some areas of the world they are a delicacy. Some farmers also consider the fruit-eaters to be agricultural pests.

“Everyone is very concerned about the disappearance of the rain forest throughout the world, and it turns out that bats are very, very importantin maintaining most normal rain forest ecosystems,” Heard said. “If you don’t have bats then you won’t have a rain forest.”

Captive breeding programs and educational initiatives, like those sponsored by the Lubee Foundation, are important, Heard said. The Lubee Foundation provides not only a gene pool but also a source of bats for exhibit and education. The foundation also has pledged $40,000 to UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for a fellowship fund in the department of wildlife ecology and conservation. The fund provides two-year awards to students who concentrate on bat research and conservation.

Heard said the bats bust their negative stereotypes once people begin to learn about them, and the species have their own distinct personalities. The Rodriguez Island flying fox, for example, is skittish and wary of humans, but the Malayan flying fox is mellow and very approachable.

“The reputation of bats is changing as people realize they won’t harm humans and don’t present a hazard to human kind,” Heard said. “The bats themselves are very good in terms of PR. People find them very interesting and then are willing to learn how beneficial they are to humans.”

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