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Study: Climate change making vampire bats with rabies migrate toward U.S.

Vampire bats are migrating farther north, due to climate change, in search of more temperate environments and could end up carrying rabies into the United States in the next 27 years, according to a new study. Photo courtesy of Paige Van De Vuurst
Vampire bats are migrating farther north, due to climate change, in search of more temperate environments and could end up carrying rabies into the United States in the next 27 years, according to a new study. Photo courtesy of Paige Van De Vuurst

Nov. 27 (UPI) -- Vampire bats are migrating farther northward, due to climate change, to seek more stable environments, and could end up carrying rabies into the United States, according to research published Monday.

The Virginia Tech field study, which appears in the Ecography journal, predicts vampire bats, which currently live in Mexico and Central and South America, could reach the United States in the next 27 years.

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"Bat-borne pathogens are a threat to global health and in recent history have had major impacts on human morbidity and mortality," the study says. "Examples include diseases such as rabies, Nipah virus encephalitis and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS."

"What we found was that the distribution of vampire bats has moved northward across time due to past climate change, which has corresponded with an increase in rabies cases in many Latin American countries," said Paige Van de Vuurst, a Ph.D. student in Virginia Tech's Translational Biology, Medicine and Health Graduate Program and lead author of the study.

"Vampire bats make northward flight seeking stable climates," researcher Diego Soler-Tovar from Universidad La Salle wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter, showing vampire bats hanging from a tree branch.

The study links vampire bats' migration northward to temperature variations during both the coldest and warmest seasons. As the bats search for more stable and temperate climates, their expanded locations have caused a spillover of rabies -- still considered to be the oldest pathogen known by humans and dating back 3,000 years -- which is linked to high mortality rates.

Researchers in the field tracked vampire bats in Colombia, which has the highest number of bats and where rampant rabies has killed livestock, in an effort to prevent migration into the United States and to protect the U.S. cattle industry.

The study tracked the bats in the hot and humid jungles, as well as in the cold and cloudy Andes Mountain to see how changes in climate impact the emergence of bat-borne diseases.

"Colombia is a mega-diverse country, making it a perfect natural laboratory," said Luis Escobar, assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment. "We all have one goal: generating samples, new data and new knowledge."

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