A bat specimen with teeth bared is held by a scientist in gloves

Bat specimens are preserved with their jaws open as their teeth are one of the key ways of distinguishing them. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London  

Read later


During Beta testing articles may only be saved for seven days.

Museum bats digitised to combat future pandemics

Thousands of the Museum's bats have been digitised to help protect the planet from future pandemics. 

Learning more about how the animals, and their viruses, have changed over time can help scientists to identify new disease hotspots before they become a threat.  

Light is being shed on one of the biggest natural reservoirs of disease as the Museum's collections are made available online. 

Over 8,000 bat specimens have been digitised for the first time as part of efforts to understand the families of bats most likely to have been involved in the spread of COVID-19. Looking at how the ecology of these flying mammals has changed over time can point to where the risk of new pandemics is at its greatest. 

Digitising these specimens has also allowed researchers to develop techniques that can mean viral DNA preserved for hundreds of years to be extracted, potentially revealing the ancestors of modern diseases. 

Prof Jonathan Ball, from the Wolfson Centre for Emerging Virus Infections at Nottingham University, says, 'These data help us identify specimens for further investigation. Because of this we have been able to develop a new protocol for obtaining the best samples of viral genome from specimens, some of them over 100 years old.  

'Next generation sequencing can be applied to these samples to provide unique insights into the array of viruses that were present in bat populations over the past hundred years, and it is hoped that this will shed light on the evolution of viruses like Ebola and coronaviruses.  

'This will become invaluable research that can be used to understand their emergence and help identify future pandemic threats.'  

Layers of drawers full of bat specimens

There are thousands of bat species, making up a fifth of all known mammals. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London  

Why do bats carry so many diseases? 

Bats are one of the most diverse groups of mammals in the world, second only to the rodents. There are over 1400 species of the flying mammals, ranging from those just three centimetres in length to bats with wingspans reaching up to 1.8 metres. 

They have adapted to live in a range of natural and artificial environments across the world, and part of their success relies on their ability to fly. 

This requires them to have a high metabolic rate up to five times higher than any other mammal. Generally, animals with higher metabolic rates tend to have shorter lives than those with larger rates, suggesting that bats shouldn't live for very long. 

However, bats are unusually long lived. When compared to other mammals of a similar size, they live around 2.6 times longer. While the exact reasons for this are uncertain, it is believed to result at least in part from their immune system and their ability to repair cellular damage. 

Prof Emma Teeling, a zoologist and geneticist from University College Dublin, says, 'Bats have incredible immune systems, very low rates of cancer, and have evolved novel ways to slow down ageing and deal with viruses. 

'This means there is huge potential to learn how we can improve human health through studying bat genomes and their immune systems. Digitisation projects like this give us a huge amount of data to work with, presenting huge opportunities for future research.' 

Their incredible immune systems are also thought to allow them to survive a range of infections which can prove fatal in humans, such as Ebola, MERS and SARS. This is believed to result from their strong immune defences, as well as a greater ability to tolerate these diseases. 

Rather than succumbing, bats instead act as a carrier for these infections, and carry the highest proportion of zoonotic diseases, which can jump between different species, of any mammal.  

While research investigating bats has been ongoing for many years, it has been given added impetus by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the virus responsible found to be around 95% similar to a bat coronavirus which infects the intermediate horseshoe bat.  

With COVID-19 able to jump from animals to humans and back again, institutions across Europe have come together to release data from over 20,000 bats held in their collections to help predict how and where future pandemics might emerge and spread.  

Senior mammal curator Roberto Portela Miguez and digitiser Phaedra Kokkini examine bats stored in spirit

Bats stored in spirit can preserve the genetic material of viruses which infected them hundreds of years ago. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London  

How does digitising bats help fight pandemics? 

The Museum focused on digitising other horseshoe bat species as well as their close relatives the Old World leaf-nosed bats and the trident bats. All three families get their name from the shape of their nose. 

In total, over 8,200 individuals were digitised as part of the project, including skeletal remains, skins, and body parts preserved in spirit. As some individuals have been dissected and the specimen split across different collections, this meant around 11,300 items were made available through the project. 

A particular focus was put on the type specimens, which are the individuals chosen to represent a species. Enhanced digitisation photography was conducted on 170 type specimens, with features such as their teeth useful for identifying which species a bat belongs to. 

Aside from the bats themselves, the viruses preserved within them can also be studied. Minute samples from organs such as the liver can be taken from specimens preserved in spirit and sequenced to identify viral DNA and RNA. 

As a bigger picture of these bat viruses is built up, it can be compared to where the specimens were obtained from to try and link these infections to certain events, such as high temperatures. In future, this may give public health experts a better idea of where and when the risk of new pandemics are greatest, allowing them to take early action to try to limit its spread. 

The newly digitised bats join more than five million records of specimens already available through the Museum's Data Portal allowing scientists from around the world to unlock reams of knowledge from the collection.  

While this is only around 6% of the collection, close to 1,700 scientific papers have already been published using this information on topics from climate change to biodiversity conservation and human health.