The first time Jon Epstein tried to catch a bat, things went awry.
It was the summer of 1998 in Australia, and a grey-headed flying fox had just flown into Epstein’s net. The 24-year-old veterinary student was going through the motions — controlling the bat’s feet and wings, gently securing the jaw — when he suddenly lost his grip. Chomp.
Epstein jerked his arm and the bat “pancaked” on the ground, startled but unhurt. Flustered, he scrambled to pick it up.
“Then, when I looked at his mouth, it turned out it didn’t have any teeth,” Epstein recalls today from New York. “As a first time getting bitten, that was probably the best way it could have happened: a toothless old bat.”
Fifteen years and thousands of bats later, Epstein has perfected his technique, having gone on bat-trapping expeditions everywhere from the suburbs of Australia to Malaysia’s mangrove forests.
The wildlife veterinary epidemiologist is part of a fast-growing cohort of international scientists studying not only bats but also the viruses they carry. Bat research is booming and scientific publications have doubled in the last decade alone, says virologist Linfa Wang with Duke-NUS graduate medical school in Singapore.
“Without exaggeration, every month there is a new paper describing bat viruses,” says Wang, often dubbed the “bat man” by colleagues. “My lab — we’re sitting on 60 new viruses we (found in bats but) haven’t yet published.”
Why the surging interest in bat viruses? One good reason is Ebola. Another is SARS. Then there is Marburg, Hendra, Nipah and, most recently, MERS, plus several other nasty diseases contributing toward a growing body count around the world.
All are viruses that are particularly deadly to humans. All have emerged in the last few decades.
And all of these viruses, it would appear, have come from bats.