The devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa started with bats in a hollow tree, a new study says. A young boy, who died of Ebola in 2013, likely played with the bats in an area very close to his home. Emile Ouamuono is said to be the index patient in this recent outbreak, but until recently, researchers couldn’t understand how he became infected.
A species of bat known as Mops condylurus are long-tailed, insect-eating bats previously suspected in the Sudanese outbreak of Ebola. Scientists found enough fecal and residual DNA in the charred remains of a tree to confirm the species. The finding is significant because most Ebola outbreaks have typically started by eating infected meat – adults who find sick antelope or apes in the forest that they butcher for food. In this case there were no sick chimpanzees or antelope in the vicinity.
Fruit bats have been suspected as the cause of Ebola outbreaks as well. Unfortunate victims would pick up fruit that the bats dropped or touched, or make a soup out of the meat, both common practices before the recent outbreak.
According to the New York Times, “there are no fruit bat colonies near Meliandou, the study said. Local men who hunted them during the migratory season had to walk long distances. Also, none of the initial cases in the village involved bat hunters.” This information led the scientists back to the boy and the tree. Children often played with the bats, local villagers said, as they walked along a path the women use to fetch water.
The research team included an anthropologist to study how humans interacted with animals as well as 10 ecologists to evaluate local wildlife and four veterinarians who caught the bats with nets and then took tissue and blood samples, according to the Times. The bats were then killed, lead author of the study Fabian Leendertz said, because they didn’t want the villagers to think they were releasing the bats to harm them. Under usual circumstances, the bats would have been released unharmed, he said.