Palm extinction triggers unusual dietary shifts in wildlife, escalating pandemic risks

Once the plants they fed on disappeared (due to man), chimpanzees began to eat bat guano. Excrement so to speak (virus-infected, obviously). This is why the risk is that the monkeys' new behavior could give rise to spillover events

Researchers have made a startling discovery: the extinction of palm trees is pushing chimpanzees, monkeys, and antelopes to consume bat guano, a potential source of viruses similar to COVID-19. This unexpected diet shift could bring humans closer to a new pandemic, according to a recent study titled “Selective deforestation and exposure of African wildlife to bat-borne viruses,” published in Communications Biology by an international team led by Pawel Fedurek and Caroline Asiimwe of the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda.

The study highlights the risk of viral spillover between species, triggered by environmental changes.

The study

Initiated after observing wild chimpanzees consuming bat guano from a tree cavity in Uganda‘s Budongo Forest, the research focuses on the consequences of the near-total eradication of the Raphia farinifera palm between 2006 and 2012. These palms, once a rich source of minerals for wildlife, were cut down to dry tobacco, which is sold to multinational companies.

The absence of these palms has led animals like chimpanzees, as well as black and white colobus monkeys and red duikers, to turn to bat guano as an alternative source of minerals—a behavior not previously documented. Bat guano, known to harbor a variety of viruses including ones related to severe pathogens like SARS-CoV-2, now poses a significant infection risk if ingested by other animals.

Laboratory analysis of the bat guano identified several viruses, including a betacoronavirus related to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. It remains unclear if this particular betacoronavirus can be transmitted to humans, but it exemplifies how new infections might cross species barriers.

Implications for future pandemic prevention

This research illustrates how even minor selective deforestation, driven by global demand for commodities like tobacco, can expose both wildlife and humans to viruses. Studies such as this shed light on the triggers and pathways of virus transmission from wildlife to humans, enhancing our ability to prevent future epidemics and pandemics.

Most epidemic and pandemic research has focused on controlling virus spread, such as developing effective vaccines, rather than preventing transmission from animals to humans. This study underscores the importance of understanding disease ecology before diseases reach humans.

By linking tobacco cultivation to wildlife exposure to bat viruses, the study once again demonstrates how human activities can drastically alter the environment and lead to severe health consequences for both wildlife and humans. This could be particularly relevant for diseases transmitted from bats like coronaviruses, raising hopes that these findings could lead to interventions that break such causal chains, ultimately helping to prevent future pandemics.

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