A bat from the collection is examined by a Museum scientist © The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London

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World Health Day: Natural History Museum completes digitising bat collection that can help fight future pandemics

The Natural History Museum has completed creating digital records of over 8000 bat specimens, providing a unique record of where bat populations have existed over time. 

  • The Natural History Museum announces today, World Health Day, that it has completed digitising over 8000 bat specimens from three bat families
  • Data created through digitisation can be used to learn more about the evolution of viruses and immunology in bats, and help mitigate the risk of future pandemics
  • The Museum collections provide a unique record of where bat populations have existed over space and time

The most common findings suggest that adult butterfly body size increase with temperature during the late These data will be openly available online, providing a resource that researchers studying viruses can use to identify specimens of interest. This research has the potential to tell us more about the evolution of viruses and immunology in bats to better understand human health, and even help mitigate the risk of future pandemics

Genome sequences of the COVID-19 virus found in humans at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 were 95% identical to that of a bat coronavirus found in a common Southeast Asian horseshoe bat species called the intermediate horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus affinis) (Li et al. 2021). A project to gather data on three families of bats across nine European institutions - including the Natural History Museum - was initiated by the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF)  COVID-19 taskforce, and funded by SYNTHESYS + Virtual Access. Data from over 20,000 bats will be released from the nine institutions, providing a new resource for scientific research and a comprehensive view of the species distribution, ecology and behaviour of bats around the world over time.


The Museum has now completed gathering data from over 8000 specimens for this project, from three families of bats: the Horseshoe bats (family Rhinolophidae) and their close relatives the Old World Leaf-nosed bats (family Hipposideridae) and Trident bats (family Rhinonycteridae).

Mitigating the risk of future pandemics

Greater understanding of species distribution and ecosystem change from specimen data can help researchers to link events such as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to specific environmental conditions. This could help to predict when a future viral spillover might occur. Furthermore, these data can be used to identify bat specimens that may contain viral DNA for further investigation, improving our understanding of the species that might carry viruses so we can anticipate and prevent the occurrence of future health crises.

Professor 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. 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.’

A better understanding of human health

Bats have several unique characteristics which scientists are studying to gain insights into bats and potentially human health. For example, having the ability to fly requires bats to have a very high metabolic rate and yet they can live for up to 40 years, whereas other animals with a high metabolic rate often live short lives because of the cellular damage that this can cause. The enhanced cellular mechanisms that bats have to repair damaged cells mean they have very good immune systems, which are of particular interest to scientists.

Professor Emma Teeling, zoologist and geneticist from University College Dublin, Ireland says ‘Bats have incredible immune systems, very low rates of cancer, and have evolved novel ways to slow down ageing and deal with viruses, so there is huge potential to learn how we can improve human health through studying the bat genome and their immune systems. Digitisation projects like this give us a huge amount of data to work with, presenting huge opportunities for future research.’

Open access data

All data generated from the digitisation project will be freely available on the Museum’s Data Portal. As part of these digital records, the Museum has generated enhanced digitisation photography of 170 type specimens from the bat collection. Museum digitiser Phaedra Kokkini says ‘We have taken photos of their skulls, and skins as well as close-up photos of the nose-leaf of the bodies preserved in spirit. These photos will be useful as a global reference for species identification in future studies.’

The data from the Museum’s bat digitisation project, including the type specimen photographs are being uploaded to the Museum’s Data Portal. Find out more about how natural history museums can help fight future pandemics here.

Notes to editors

Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654 / 07799690151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk.

Images available to download here.

About the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited indoor attraction in the UK last year. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens accessed by researchers from all over the world both in person and via over 30 billion digital data downloads to date. The Museum’s 300 scientists are finding solutions to the planetary emergency from biodiversity loss through to the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome millions of visitors through our doors each year, our website has had 17 million visits in the last year and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 20 million people in the last 10 years.