August 8, 2018 at 10:17 am

Johnson, Aguilar Study Vampire Bat Adaptation in Ecuador

Juan Pablo Aguilar Cabezas, portrait

Juan Pablo Aguilar Cabezas

Dr. Joseph Johnson, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at Ohio University, and Juan Pablo Aguilar Cabezas, student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology doctoral program, are looking forward to embarking in a new fascinating research project: Understanding the population ecology of the vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, in Ecuador.

Yes: vampire bats!

Although there are over 1,200 species of bats, only three are truly vampires. These obligate blood-feeders have fascinating behaviors and ecologies but suffer from human persecution over fear of rabies transmission. Because rabies affects humans and their livestock, the vampire bat is often blamed for human illness as well as economic losses.

However, the dynamics behind rabies transmission are poorly understood and highly influenced by human behaviors. Factors such as growing livestock industries and deforestation are among the most notable causes for increased conflicts between humans and these alluring mammals. Furthermore, the isolation of many communities in the Amazon, where vampire bats are commonly found, significantly complicates access to vaccines when needed.

Dr. Joseph Johnson, portrait

Dr. Joseph Johnson

Not surprisingly, a culling campaign began in the 1970s to control vampire bat populations using an anticoagulant paste. This paste is applied either to the livestock or to captured bats. This compound kills vampire bats by inhibiting the enzyme vitamin K epoxide reductase (VKOR) causing prolonged effects like bleeding, anemia, weakness, and ultimately death. A similar strategy is used to control mice, and studies have identified genes causing resistance, signifying adaptation to human control efforts.

Although vampiricide has been used in efforts to control bats for more than 40 years, researchers have yet to ask the questions: Have bats adapted? Is the strategy efficient?

The overall goal of the project is to assess population structure and estimate demographic parameters in the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) in Ecuador. They also look to determine if the vampiricide has created a genetic signal indicating a recent population bottleneck (and possible later expansion following adaptation) using genome-wide information.

Additionally, they will infer fine-level population structure and test the hypothesis of the Andes Cordillera as a barrier to gene flow.

Overall, they hope to use this data set to detect signals of natural selection and identify genes linked to resistance. In addition, they hope to communicate with locals about the ecological value to bats, including vampires, and promote efforts that reduce disease transmission outside of culling bats.

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