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The Hazards of Eating Bats

Article #94 • Written by Bryan Lowder

Bats, along with spiders and snakes, are one of the most frequently feared animals. Ask any bat lover, and they will tell you that these creatures are harmless and unfairly maligned. Sure they carry rabies, but so do many other animals, including "man's best friend" the dog. People's phobias, they maintain, comes from the medieval association of bats with the Devil, or from fear of the dark, or vampire legends, or some such thing. Bats are cute and good for the ecosystem. Leave them alone and they'll leave you alone.

That last sentence may be true, but apparently some bats aren't harmless. Certain bats are now suspected of causing some of the world's most feared diseases. And all the trouble started because some people, rather than leave them alone, eat them.

Australian researchers Lin-Fa Wang and Hugh Field have found that horseshoe bats are the likely natural reservoir of the deadly SARS virus that struck southern China in 2002, killing over 700 people and sickening thousands. Originally, a SARS-like virus was found in an animal called the palm civet (a cousin to the "source" of Luak Coffee). When this turned out to be a red herring, Wang and Field placed their bets on bats. Sure enough, SARS-like viruses and antibodies against them showed up in a whole lotta bats, and the finding has been repeated by others around the world.

The duo had good reasons to suspect our flying friends. Bats had already been found to harbor the nasty Hendra and Neepa viruses. And bats have so many disease-harboring and -spreading talents that researcher Kathryn Holmes calls them "magnificent vectors". They're more closely related to humans than you might think (some classify them as primates). They are relatively long lived, a potentially stable home. They huddle together during the day, sneezing and coughing on each other and spreading viruses around, even to other bat species. Then at night, they spread out for miles, potentially spreading disease far and wide. Some even think they can carry diseases without getting very sick themselves. Yikes.

How is it that humans managed to get these diseases? It looks like the sale of bats for food is to blame for bringing folks and flying furballs together. Most Westerners cringe at the thought of eating the critters, but they are prized as food in other parts of the world. The outbreak of SARS is likely due to humans mingling with bats in the crowded markets of southern China.

Now the poor creatures are suspected of spreading the hideous Marburg and Ebola viruses. Could it get any worse? Yes. The eating of giant fruit bats or "flying foxes" on the island of Guam is now blamed for causing one of the most baffling and disturbing epidemics ever-- a sudden appearance of a Parkinson's disease-like syndrome in the 1970's.

The Chamorro people of Guam loved the taste of flying foxes. An American military presence in Guam suddenly made guns more available, and therefore made the delicious giant fruit bats more available too. After downing a flying fox, an aboriginal resident of Guam would drop the whole thing unskinned into a pot of boiling milk. In an hour or so, soup was on. But every scrumptious spoonful was causing cumulative poisoning.

Primitive, fern-like trees called cycads grow on Guam and neighboring islands. These plants produce brightly-colored fruits that often contain neurotoxins. The native peoples ate the seeds, but were wise to the danger, and they therefore washed the seeds thoroughly.

The bats, however, were not so discriminating. They ate the fruits with relish, accumulating toxins in their flesh. And then the Guamians ate them. After downing enough bats, these people started showing tragic symptoms of a new disease christened ALS-PDC. The syndrome was a ghastly amalgam of Alzheimer's-like dementia, ALS-like slow paralysis, and Parkinson's-like shaking. Eventually the disease became the leading cause of death among the adult Chamorro people.

Then just as suddenly, new cases of the disease stopped happening. Turns out that the native bats had been hunted to near-extinction, and different species were being imported from Samoa and other places where no cycads grew. The origin of the disease wasn't worked out until years later, so it remained a deep mystery for decades. The answer was over their heads the whole time-- they merely needed to look up to that leathery flapping sound.

After all of this, bats need a friend. But don't give them a hug. And don't eat them.

Article written by Bryan Lowder, published on 13 January 2006. Bryan is a bioengineer living with his family in Utah. He enjoys imagining that he has hobbies such as microcontroller programming, writing, mushroom culturing, and holography.

Edited by Alan Bellows.

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24 Comments
Marius
Posted 13 January 2006 at 09:11 am

Damn! And I was going to try to market Bat Sorbet in Japan this year.


Josh Harding
Posted 13 January 2006 at 11:32 am

This past summer, I had bats living in the attic above my bedroom. They would scamper out at night and fly around in circles, feasting on the plethra of mosquitos infesting my yard. It was a truly sad day when they flew away and I sealed their entry point so they could never return.


Josh Harding
Posted 13 January 2006 at 11:33 am

I forgot to mention that however many bugs they ate, I never tried to eat one. It ranks up there with licking frogs.


Stitzel Jim
Posted 13 January 2006 at 12:30 pm

From what I understand, Australian aborigines are one human population the consumes bats on a regular basis. Now, I don't have a problem with bats at all, but I've never really had much of a desire to eat them -- not enough meat. ;-)


Bryan Lowder
Posted 13 January 2006 at 06:40 pm

I'm one of the bat lovers mentioned at the beginning of the article. I personally think bats are terrific. I'm just saddened that they are disease-ridden and that new international laws prevent me from buying my own flying fox.

Josh Harding said: "I forgot to mention that however many bugs they ate, I never tried to eat one. It ranks up there with licking frogs."

Never tried to eat a bat, or never tried to eat a bug?


MeasureMan
Posted 13 January 2006 at 07:54 pm

Eat a bat and you may just turn out like Ossie Osbourne.


Arcangel
Posted 13 January 2006 at 08:57 pm

I'm a bat fancier as well but not in the culinary fashion. Although not disease riddled like the bat or flying fox, the tarantula spider is also a delicacy when boiled and I would not eat one of those.


Secret Ninja
Posted 13 January 2006 at 10:07 pm

Ozzy is a pretty successful guy, and I would be thoroughly pleased to be half as rich as him.


thatsmyname
Posted 13 January 2006 at 11:04 pm

what an amazing find!

-L.


JustAnotherName
Posted 14 January 2006 at 05:50 am

Log on next week! Same Bat Time! Same Bat Channel! ::::Doing Bat Dance::::


Eric Leeson
Posted 14 January 2006 at 01:34 pm

I am one of those people who are willing to eat just about anything: insects, monkey brains (given the chance), deer testicles. However, I cringe at the thought of eating bats; They are simply too disease-ridden.


cajun
Posted 14 January 2006 at 11:01 pm

In 1995, Richard Preston speculated in his book "The Hot Zone" that the breeding ground for the ebola virus was probably in bat droppings found in their caves.

Ebola is some scary, scary stuff.

Perhaps the ancient cultures had good reason for demonizing bats.


440Fronte|htid|
Posted 16 January 2006 at 07:40 pm

what did the ebola virus do? Dont we get shots for it?

>.> damn bats.


superwoman
Posted 25 January 2006 at 08:38 am

I love bats!! I didn't know they carried al these diseases though!


Tink
Posted 01 October 2006 at 06:16 pm

Josh Harding said: "I forgot to mention that however many bugs they ate, I never tried to eat one. It ranks up there with licking frogs."

Yeah like smelling moth balls.....

Bryan Lowder said: "I'm one of the bat lovers mentioned at the beginning of the article. I personally think bats are terrific. I'm just saddened that they are disease-ridden and that new international laws prevent me from buying my own flying fox.
Never tried to eat a bat, or never tried to eat a bug?"

it's hard to do with out pulling their little legs or wings off. Hahaha. My bad. ;)


Cathryn
Posted 31 December 2006 at 11:28 am

you've convinced me, i wont eat bugs anymore.


emerald
Posted 12 January 2007 at 07:04 pm

MeasureMan said: "Eat a bat and you may just turn out like Ossie Osbourne."

More like take enough drugs and you'll end up biting the heads off of pigeons and bats like Ozzy Osbourne. I still love ya though Ozzy.

From what I remember seeing on TV, the first time Ozzy bit the head off something he was at a press conference, and very much out of it from one drug or another. He was sitting down and a pigeon landed on his lap, he just picked it up and bit it's head off. I seem to remember him saying something like: "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Now I'm not sure if thats true, but it is a pretty good reason not to take drugs.

When I research it quickly, I get a slightly different story. Studio executives invited Ozzy to thier office to make peace (because he and the studio were having a dissagreement). Instead of presenting a "white dove of peace", he bit the head off the bird infront of them. The studio executives were outraged, but Ozzy tried to calm them down by letting them know: "The bird was already dead."

I know he claims that he though the bat was a rubber toy when he bit it's head off after a fan threw it onstage. Apparently he had to get a bunch of rabbies shots after that. Oh look at that! I may have accidentally gotten back on topic.


Alchemist
Posted 23 October 2007 at 09:15 am

I'm curious to know who counts bats as primates. Still, those are some pretty horrible diseases.


lizdini
Posted 19 March 2008 at 09:06 pm

Alchemist said: "I'm curious to know who counts bats as primates. Still, those are some pretty horrible diseases."

Yeah, I've never heard such a thing, either


Dr. Zoidberg
Posted 23 August 2008 at 11:26 pm

Being a native Chamorro, I find it interesting to link the fruit bat to the disease known as ALS-PDC. I need to point out, however, that the majority of people struck with ALS-PDC lived in the southern end of the island, while the population of bats, and the majority of bat eating people lived in the northern end. I don't think any reason has ever been given to explain this.


SGTverlon
Posted 16 January 2014 at 01:46 am

Stitzel Jim said: "From what I understand, Australian aborigines are one human population the consumes bats on a regular basis. Now, I don't have a problem with bats at all, but I've never really had much of a desire to eat them -- not enough meat. ;-)"

I ate one the other night and have had the worst shakes of my life worse than getting off drugs or ptsd from running over stupid terrorist kids with rpgs but have noticed excepianal straigth and cant sleep "dont do it " im at day three now and have yet to controlle the shakes even with ungoddly amounts of anticonvolstion meds i should have ODed already but whatever they got in them could have some benifets because im not dead and did 3 more push ups each set and ran my 2 miles 17 seconds faster than my average for the last 7 years ill keep an update but i must say also i havnt eaten store bought meat in a month


Bryan Lowder
Posted 17 January 2014 at 10:45 am

I ate one the other night and have had the worst shakes of my life worse than getting off drugs or ptsd from running over stupid terrorist kids...

Damnit, what did I tell you? Don't eat bats! That's a direct command found in the article. Obey!

The penalty you will pay for such a rash act are grave, and the solemn responsibilities you have taken upon yourself are permanent and unavoidable. Welcome to Hell, you poor bastard.

I just hope that the camaraderie you feel with your counterparts and the changes you make in the world will provide you with satisfaction to counterbalance the Atlas weight on your shoulders.

As for the primate/bat connection, it applies specifically to flying foxes. Here's at least one person who is convinced:

http://batcon.org/index.php/media-and-info/bats-archives.html?task=viewArticle&magArticleID=259


Chris
Posted 10 May 2014 at 10:04 pm

The bats that used to live on Guam have been extinct since about 1969 thanks to the United States. As a citizen I am ashamed at just how many animals we as a country have caused to go extinct because we are too focused on money than actual survival.

Think before you make decisions that can cause more issues. They now ship in other bat species that are endangered and have also been linked to causing at least five other bat species to go extinct because of the restaurants.


Hessam
Posted 09 August 2014 at 03:53 am

Holy moly ,I did try it 2times in Palau island,to be honest to u I did like it and it was so delicious meat that I ever had.


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