In addition to the commonly accepted importance of the vampire bat in the maintenance and transmission of the rabies virus (RABV) in South America, RABV infection of other species is widely evidenced, challenging their role in the viral cycle.
Methodology / Principles findings
To identify the bioecological drivers of RABV circulation in neotropical bat communities, we conducted a molecular and serological survey on almost 1,000 bats from 30 species, and a 4-year longitudinal survey in two colonies of vampire bats in French Guiana. RABV was molecularly detected in a common vampire and in a frugivorous bat. The sequences corresponded to haematophagous bat-related strains and were close to viruses circulating in the Brazilian Amazon region. Species’ seroprevalence ranged from 0 to 20%, and the risk of seropositivity was higher in bats with a haematophagous diet, living in monospecific colonies and in dense forests. The longitudinal survey showed substantial temporal fluctuations, with individual waves of seroconversions and waning immunity. The high prevalences observed in bat communities, in most habitats and in species that do not share the same microhabitats and bioecological patterns, the temporal variations, and a rather short period of detectable antibodies as observed in recaptured vampires suggest (i) frequent exposure of animals, (ii) an ability of the infected host to control and eliminate the virus, (iii) more relaxed modes of exposure between bats than the commonly assumed infection via direct contact with saliva of infected animals, all of which should be further investigated.
Conclusions / significance
We hypothesize that RABV circulation in French Guiana is mainly maintained in the pristine forest habitats that may provide sufficient food resources to allow vampire bats, the main prevalent species, to survive and RABV to be propagated. However, on the forest edge and in disturbed areas, human activities may induce more insidious effects such as defaunation. One of the ecological consequences is the disappearance of resources for tertiary or secondary consumers. Populations of vampires may then shift to alternative resources such as cattle, domestic animals and humans. Therefore, a good forest status, allowing both a dilution effect in highly rich bat communities and the maintenance of large populations of medium-sized and large mammals used as prey by vampires, should prevent their migration to anthropized areas.
The vampire bat is known to be the main reservoir of the rabies virus (RABV) in South America. Nevertheless, other bat species are implicated in the cycle of the virus. Indeed, seven genus-specific rabies lineages have been described in insectivorous bats in Brazil. In French Guiana, we looked for the presence of the virus in a large number of bats, belonging to 30 different species. We found a high rate of seropositive animals, mainly haematophagous bats, and in those living in monospecific colonies and in forest habitats. We also monitored two colonies of vampire bats over a 4-year period and found that some animals became seropositive for the RABV, while others, after being seropositive, were able to become seronegative. These data first of all demonstrate that the virus widely circulates in bat communities with transmission occurring via direct saliva contact with broken skin and mucosa at the intra-specific level in vampire bat species. Exposure of other bat species, including those that do not share the same microhabitat, occurs in all forest strata through modes of transmission that have yet to be determined. Secondly, these animals seem to be exposed regularly, and most of them have a great ability to control and eliminate the virus. Third, these results suggest that pristine forest habitats provide sufficient food resources for the survival of vampire bats and propagation of RABV. In contrast, in disturbed habitats, where resources are decreasing, the vampires might have to shift to alternative resources such as cattle, domestic animals or even human beings. Altogether, the risk of rabies virus transmission may increase on the edge between forest and anthropized areas.