/ 15 August 2014

Batty scientists crawl out of their holes

Batty scientists.
Batty scientists.

There is a faint light in the distance, made startlingly bright by the enveloping darkness around me. My breath comes in short gasps, the light starts to dim behind a misty haze and a buzzing reverberates through my head. No, this is not a near-death experience. It is the story of a scientist — more specifically a virologist — in the field. 

The sunlight from the cave’s entrance is barely encroaching upon the darkness of the cave, appearing as a mere pinprick 20m away. My breath is causing my respirator visor to mist, while my power-pack, a small box at my waist about the size of a six-pack, whines like a vacuum cleaner as it pumps air into my respirator helmet. Researching viruses in the field — especially bat-related viruses — is not for the faint-hearted.

Most people who encounter bats are worried about them flying into their faces; they imagine them as air-borne rats. They aren’t, and they will not fly into your face. They do, however, carry viruses, but these viruses typically don’t make the bats sick. Like humans and their viruses, bats and theirs have been struggling in a constant “arms race” throughout their joint history.

As virologists in bat research, we look at the viruses that bats carry and try to determine whether some of them could be a possible danger to us. But the vast majority of bat-borne viruses are not actually harmful to humans. If they are, it is our job to identify these viruses and ensure that they don’t affect us, either through a vaccine, conservation efforts or simply by informing the public. 

A major part of this public awareness is reminding people that bats are wild animals, and like any wild animal, you should not approach it unless you know how what you are doing. It would be ill-advised to try to stroke a lion in the Kruger National Park. Similarly, you should not try to touch or catch a bat.

Since bats have many viruses — most of which are unknown to us — we need to work in specialised equipment. In the field, we come into contact with bat excrement and blood, which may contain viruses that are harmful to humans. This is the highest possible risk situation and not one that most people would find themselves in — and definitely a situation they shouldn’t seek out unprepared.

But in our specialised personal protective equipment, we are prepared for anything, and look as though we should be part of a mission to Mars. Protected from head to toe in specialised blue coveralls and a big white respirator hood, we look like the demonic love child of a Smurf and an alien astronaut. A pipe extends out the back of the hood, connecting to the powerpack that provides our filtered air supply. 

But your hands, the common point of contact with bats, need extra protection: three pairs of gloves’ worth of extra protection. The first two pairs are nitrile gloves, which are the same ones your doctor wears, and the last are thick leather to protect our skin from the bats’ teeth. Hardly an outfit to lounge around in, much less hike in, but your curiosity overcomes your discomfort and you gladly climb into this Smurf-astronaut uniform so that you can clamber into the unknown. 

Going into a new cave is not for everyone. Often locals will tell stories about it, sometimes about children disappearing, most likely having been eaten by the giant rock python that lives in the cave (the giant rock python is very real), or will say their final goodbyes at the cave entrance because they don’t expect to see you again. Some caves are used for religious purposes and ritual sacrifices are required before we are able to enter.

But my fellow researchers and I remain undeterred and step into the pitch chasm. Darkness engulfs us and seems to cling to our headlamps as we cautiously make our way into the cave. We explore nooks and crannies, under rocks and in pitfalls, searching for bat colonies that could range from 10 bats to a million. 

Sometimes you only find darkness in the cave’s depth. Other times, as you shine your headlamp up onto the ceiling, it lights up with thousands of pinpricks of light as the bats’ eyes shine back at you — the Milky Way on the roof of a cave. The light disturbs the bats and wings begin to flap, slowly at first but then with increasing intensity. They chitter — a cacophony as though an entire aviary of birds decided to sing and chirp as one. In a flurry, the bats take to wing, seemingly chaotically, yet with the unerring precision of a flash mob: hundreds of bats will fly through a tunnel the width of your car window without crashing into one another. 

The sweat drips down your forehead and you forget about your cumbersome suit and the long trek up the mountain through the bush; you forget the hours spent in the lab and forget the many more hours to come. You forget because you have experienced something that will remain with you for the rest of your life: you are surrounded by tens of thousands of animals, animals that are unique in so many ways and that we still do not fully comprehend. 

Terence Scott is a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria.

This publication is the culmination of a six-month-long Mail & Guardian project, called Science Voices, to teach postgraduate science students how to turn their academic writing into something the public can read and enjoy.