Climate change has created a hotspot for coronavirus-carrying bats in South China, which researchers think increased the chance for one to jump to humans -- like COVID-19. Photo by Anton 17/Wikimedia Commons
Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Often, climate change is blamed for shrinking habitats and depressing biodiversity, but new research suggests climate change has expanded the preferred habitat of coronavirus-carrying bats in Southern China.
According to a new study of vegetation shifts across South China's Yunnan province, as well as the neighboring regions in Myanmar and Laos, tropical scrublands have been transformed by shifts in temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels over the last century.
The changes -- described Friday in the journal Science of the Total Environment -- have made these regions friendly to bat species in South Asia.
"The estimated climate-driven shift of these biomes to tropical savannas and deciduous woodland then likely created a suitable environment for many of these species," lead study author Robert Beyer, zoologist and researcher at the University of Cambridge, told UPI in an email.
Scientists estimate at least 40 bat species have migrated into the Yunnan province over the last 100 years, introducing 100 new coronaviruses to bat populations in the region.
With a greater number of coronaviruses circulating within a diverse reservoir of bats, there is an increased risk that dangerous, transmissible viruses evolve.
Scientists suggest that studying the shifting distribution of coronaviruses within animal populations can help researchers pinpoint the evolutionary origins of COVID-19, the coronavirus infection responsible for the ongoing pandemic.
Beyer and his colleagues acknowledged that bat and coronavirus biodiversity in isolation isn't all that great of a risk.
However, many of the human activities that have spurred climate change -- yielding a global hotspot for coronavirus-carrying bat diversity -- have also increased the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.
"The ways humans interact with virus-carrying animals is undoubtedly the key factor in zoonotic spill overs," Beyer said.
"The expansion of urban areas, farmland and hunting grounds deeper and deeper into natural habitats creates ever more opportunities for contact between humans and pathogen-carrying wildlife, which drives transmissions," Beyer said.
In followup studies, the researchers said they hope to marry their climate change and vegetation models with epidemiological models that plot the interactions between viruses and animal hosts.
"Only this can attempt to really quantify to what extent climate change contributed to the [COVID-19] outbreak," Beyer said.