GAINESVILLE---Humans seem to think that blood and bats go hand in hand, andthey 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 orendangered, said UF researcher Darryl Heard, a specialist in wildlife andzoological medicine at UF's College of Veterinary Medicine.
"We want to identify disease problems that might affect these species inthe wild and establish normal values for assessing their health," Heard said.
By drawing the blood of healthy bats, Heard says researchers can establishnormal levels for substances such as vitamins and proteins. That data thencan be used by researchers in the field when they are surveying fornutritional problems and infectious diseases in bat populations.
The fruit bats with which Heard works are megabats, the giant cousins ofthe microbats that call the UF bat house home. He has been studyingmegabats since 1992 at the Lubee Foundation, a 120-acre bat conservationand 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 ofheart disease, the problem was traced back to the diet they were fed.Researchers discovered the problem -- a lack of vitamin E -- by drawing andcomparing the blood of sick bats and healthy bats.
With bat research still in its infancy, there is much more to be learned bystudying 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 veryrecently. A lot of research in the conservation field goes to gorillas andother charismatic animals," Heard said. "But animals that people don'tperceive to be 'pretty' in an anthropomorphic way are frequently neglectedin terms of research, bats being a classic example of that.
"Fortunately, people have been finding that bats are a very importantcomponent of many ecosystems of the world."
Old World fruit bats are found in Africa, Asia and the Indian Oceanislands. In the rain forests of those areas, the bats are critical topollination and seed dispersal, which helps to maintain the diversity ofrain forest plants.
The bats are threatened by habitat destruction in many areas, and in someareas of the world they are a delicacy. Some farmers also consider thefruit-eaters to be agricultural pests.
"Everyone is very concerned about the disappearance of the rain forestthroughout the world, and it turns out that bats are very, very importantin maintaining most normal rain forest ecosystems," Heard said. "If youdon't have bats then you won't have a rain forest."
Captive breeding programs and educational initiatives, like those sponsoredby the Lubee Foundation, are important, Heard said. The Lubee Foundationprovides not only a gene pool but also a source of bats for exhibit andeducation. The foundation also has pledged $40,000 to UF's Institute ofFood and Agricultural Sciences for a fellowship fund in the department ofwildlife ecology and conservation. The fund provides two-year awards tostudents who concentrate on bat research and conservation.
Heard said the bats bust their negative stereotypes once people begin tolearn about them, and the species have their own distinct personalities.The Rodriguez Island flying fox, for example, is skittish and wary ofhumans, but the Malayan flying fox is mellow and very approachable.
"The reputation of bats is changing as people realize they won't harmhumans and don't present a hazard to humankind," Heard said. "The batsthemselves are very good in terms of PR. People find them very interestingand then are willing to learn how beneficial they are to humans."
Materials provided by Institute Of Food And Agricultural Sciences, University Of Florida. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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