Advice for Young People Interested in Science and Conservation

By Merlin Tuttle
4-28-17

Dream Jobs Available

Imagine what life would be like if you could find a job that was as much fun as the things you dream about doing on vacation. Not just having fun, but also doing things that would make you proud. Believe it or not that is possible!

Merlin Tuttle, age 5 1/2, with parents, Horace and June, and brother, Arden, age 2 1/2 in 1946.

I know, because that’s the kind of life I’ve personally lived. I didn’t succeed because I was brilliant or because of wealthy parents. And I can’t say I never had any problems. There were plenty, and when they happened I did not view them as helpful! But, looking back, I realize that some of the seemingly worst ones, were essential. They forced me to become a skilled negotiator and problem solver. It’s like lifting weights to build muscles. They don’t develop by accident! Looking back, I’m grateful not to have been born into a problem-free childhood.

Though my family was poor, and I often had to wear clothes to school that embarrassed me, I loved learning about nature. And fortunately, my parents encouraged my interests, even when my curiosity veered to snakes at age 5 (which terrified my mother). I went through many stages of interest, with plenty of options. Here’s what worked for me.

Finding Your Passion

I became interested in small mammals when a scientist who studied them (called a mammalogist) came to my school and spoke to my fifth grade class. He told about some of his discoveries, but most importantly, he shared experiences and photos from his most recent trip to a Central American rain forest. I’ll never forget saying to myself, “You mean scientists can actually get paid for having fun adventures in remote jungles? That’s what I want to do!”

I wrote him a letter and asked how to start learning to be a mammalogist, and he advised me to get a book about mammals of California, the state where we lived at the time. My parents bought it for my 9th birthday. The book included lots of fascinating information about small mammals, and soon I was capturing and identifying a wide variety, from deer mice and kangaroo rats to pocket gophers and shrews.

Merlin at age 15, calling his trained Harris’s hawk back from a hunt. Like hawks, he learned that bats could be called for rewards. Photo by Horace Tuttle

My father helped me build special live traps and cages.  And as each new species was caught, I identified it from my book and enthusiastically looked up as much information as possible. I learned that deer mice sang, that kangaroo rats could survive in deserts without drinking water, and that shrews had venom like cobras.

The downside was that I flunked the fifth grade! I was so busy learning about animals that I just never seemed to find time for school work. But I was making invaluable progress of a different kind. Luckily, by the next year an understanding teacher convinced me that being a good scientist meant learning skills that I had never thought I needed. By then, I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. degree in mammalogy, an impossibility without becoming a better student. Still, I found some subjects nearly impossible until I learned their relevance to my goals.

Early in life, virtually everyone is curious about living things and the natural world. Sadly, too often, we are frightened away from science when we are told we must memorize seemingly endless scientific names and master math before having a chance to see how much fun scientists can have using these tools to make exciting discoveries.

At least for me, motivation was everything! I didn’t even learn to read till an insightful fourth grade teacher introduced me to higher level books on subjects that interested me. As a freshman in college, I struggled with courses that didn’t seem relevant. I nearly flunked Spanish and considered it practically impossible till I was offered a grand adventure, working for six months as a mammalogist on the American Museum of Natural History’s Uruguayan expedition. Suddenly motivated, Spanish became easy and I became the expedition interpreter. When I returned to college after that expedition, impediments like foreign language and math no longer seemed so impossible. I’d seen how scientists relied on them.

Everyone Needs Help

Fortunately, my father encouraged me to be fearless in approaching experts for help. He took me to universities to meet mammalogy professors and helped me to prepare with appropriate questions. I never wasted their time just to meet them, and not a single one ever said he was too busy to help me.

I gradually learned to take good data and keep field note records. So, by the time our family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, I was quite comfortable seeking the advice of local mammalogy professor Dr. Joe Howell at the University of Tennessee. He enthusiastically became my mentor and helped me write my first three scientific papers, based on high school research projects.

US Navy plane unloading Merlin’s Smithsonian expedition equipment in a remote Venezuelan savanna. He and his group would not have further contact with the outside world for 8 months.

I soon discovered that gray bats lived in a cave near my home. They were only present in the spring and fall. But books on mammals all said these bats lived in a single cave year-round. For a year, I carefully recorded their arrivals and departures and became convinced that they were migrating.

I persuaded my mother to drive me to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. But because we didn’t know anyone there, we just arrived unannounced and told the receptionist we’d like to meet a bat expert. Within a few minutes, Dr. Charles Handley, Director of the Division of Mammals, and a bat expert, came down and warmly welcomed us. In fact, he spent most of the day showing me their collections and introducing me to U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff in charge of bat banding.

They advised me on how to band bats and gave me several thousand bands so I could try to figure out where my bats were going. This led to incredible discoveries. My bats, that supposedly didn’t migrate, were traveling as far south as Florida in spring and returning north in the fall, the opposite of what I had expected!

I had finally found my passion. It wasn’t just small mammals. It was bats. I eventually banded more than 40,000 gray bats and had many exciting adventures tracking their movements and behavior in a study that became my Ph.D. thesis. Many of the details are available in my book, The Secret Lives of Bats: My Adventures With the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals.

Thanks to early encouragement from my parents, and enthusiastic help from leading scientists, I did far more than just obtain a Ph.D. degree. Due to all the extra advice and connections I developed while still in high school, I had adventures most people only dream of before even finishing college. In fact, through fieldwork I loved, I visited Central America, Peru, and Uruguay, funded by the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History, earning sufficient income to fund both college and graduate school. And Dr. Handley hired me to become Co-Director of the Smithsonian’s $400,000 Venezuelan Project for two years the moment I graduated from college. It was an amazing adventure, in some of the most remote jungles of Latin America, and the experience was invaluable.

Merlin Tuttle at age 25 eating guama fruit with Shamatari Indian family in a remote part of the Venezuelan Amazonas while leading his Smithsonian expedition.

Dr. Handley’s personal recommendation later assured my acceptance into a top graduate program at the University of Kansas. And when I graduated, his recommendation clinched an excellent full-time research position as Curator of Mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum in Wisconsin. That led to 11 years of research and photography of bats in Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Like me, most scientists who have excelled in their fields have had lots of deeply appreciated help early in their careers. Never fear approaching them. Most are delighted to help the next generation!

Choosing a Career

In choosing a career, don’t be influenced by promises of easy employment or high wages. Instead, choose something that you enthusiastically enjoy. There’s no better time to follow your passion!

I’ve often heard students say, “But I’m not smart enough to do that.” My response—“You’re probably smart enough to succeed at anything you’re passionately interested in.” No one can predict future employment opportunities. In a fast-changing world, whatever looks like big security and wages today may be terrible a few years from now. The only certainty is that you’ll excel at what passionately interests you, and there will always be jobs for those who excel, especially if their chosen work helps people.

So how can a bat biologist help people? Easy! People need bats, lots of them. Bats save farmers billions of dollars annually by protecting crops from pests. They safeguard our health by reducing needs for toxic pesticides. And whole ecosystems essential to our very survival depend on bats to keep insects in check, to pollinate flowers, and to carry seeds needed for forests to regrow. Loss of bats can seriously threaten our own well-being. Often protecting nature is the single most important thing we can do to help people.

Finally, to guarantee success, you must also learn to be a good story teller. Great entertainers typically have the highest paying, most secure jobs. Scientific discoveries are worthless unless well communicated to people who most need to know.

Practice Makes Perfect

As I learned really cool things about small mammals, I just couldn’t help sharing my knowledge. And nearly everyone was fascinated. By the time I was 10, I was invited to teach other kids my age about mammals at a summer camp. It was fun! At age 14, I received my first invitation to be a guest speaker at a convention for several hundred teachers, and it was still fun. Through early practice, I had learned the importance of simple, entertaining communication. Thousands of times later, it’s still fun, and each time becomes easier.

Learning to be an entertaining speaker is invaluable no matter what you do in life. If it frightens you, here are some suggestions. Watch friends and others who you find most entertaining. Try to understand what they are doing that makes them good at it. Then practice these things during daily conversations with your friends. You might also find opportunities to entertain small groups of children informally. My early experiences speaking to Boy Scout and Girl Scout types provided outstanding opportunities. It’s never too late to begin practicing! And with practice you’ll overcome fear.

Merlin Tuttle in 1960 emerging from tight crawlway passage in Pearson Cave, Tennessee while searching for gray bats.

Photography seals the deal. That is something I didn’t learn until after I was already a professional bat biologist. When I was asked to write a chapter on bats for a National Geographic book, I was extremely displeased to see the pictures they had selected.  All showed bats snarling in self-defense, making them appear vicious. When I complained, a staff photographer was sent with me to take better ones. It was difficult, and he got only a few. But by watching him, I learned to take pictures myself.

I soon discovered that those photos could have huge impact in improving people’s attitudes toward bats. At the same time, the combination of speaking experience and good photos also greatly improved support for my research. But one more hurdle remained.

Somehow, I also managed to get through graduate school without ever learning to be a good writer. Several years later, when graduate student Mike Ryan and I co-authored a cover story for the journal Science, junior author Mike had to point out my many deficiencies. I was deeply embarrassed, vowing “Never again!” I made a list of my weaknesses, and for months, I reviewed it religiously whenever I wrote. It worked! Less than 12 months later I was writing for National Geographic. Once motivated, we’re never too old to learn.

There is one simple rule to job security as a scientist. Conduct quality research that clearly helps people. Use simple language and photos to communicate its importance. And learn to entertain the public as well as your colleagues. Good science rarely requires high-powered math or complex jargon. There is nothing that an average person with a passionate interest can’t do, especially if you have an active curiosity.

Follow Your Heart

Just as it seemed that life couldn’t get any better, I became deeply concerned about seeing huge declines of bats. When I announced my resignation from an extraordinarily secure job in Milwaukee to devote full-time to conserving these animals, even my best friends and colleagues thought I’d lost my mind. “What? you’re going to found a conservation organization solely for bats!” At the time, bats were intensely feared. Most people only wanted to kill them. Not even traditional conservation organizations wanted anything to do with such unpopular animals.

Nevertheless, despite the seeming hopelessness of building an organization for such hated animals, Bat Conservation International (BCI) quickly became a big success. We relocated to Austin, Texas, where more than a million bats had begun moving into newly created crevices beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge. Citizens had been warned that the bats were rabid and dangerous and were signing petitions to have them eradicated. News stories from coast to coast told how Austin was being invaded by hundreds of thousands of rabid bats.

However, just by being well informed, and able to entertain with fascinating information and photos, I was able to quickly change people’s minds. In fact, this became a golden opportunity to educate the world about the many benefits of protecting bats as safe and valuable neighbors. Austin is now the world center for publicity about the values of protecting bats.

I know this sounds like a huge fairy tale, but it isn’t! It simply proves how far one can go when pursuing a passionate interest that benefits people. Just start as early as possible. Work hard, and don’t hesitate to seek help. Many will warn you it can’t be done. But there are still many good people who love helping prove the seemingly impossible. With their help, you can do it!

 

Merlin personally addresses this subject in this video!

Merlin playing with pet ocelot during his work for the Smithsonian in Venezuela in 1967, age 26.

 

Merlin wading rain forest river in Belize to photograph proboscis bats (Rhynchonycteris naso), a male with his mates.

 

Merlin emerging from photographing frog-eating bats (Tracops cirrhosis) in a hollow tree in the Panamanian rain forest.

 

Merlin Tuttle and his photo equipment being lowered some 60 feet into a Jamaican cave in a guano collecting bag in 1985. The goal was to photograph male Jamaican fruit-eating bats (Artibeus jamaicensis) guarding their harems. The men insisted on Merlin holding onto a vine in case the rope broke!
Armed guards protecting Merlin and crew from tigers while searching for bat roosts in Thailand.

 

Merlin looking for spotted bat (Euderma maculatum) roosts in cliff faces in a southwestern US desert.

 

Merlin and assistants photographing painted bats (Kerivoula picta) roosting in banana leaf in Thailand.

 

Merlin Tuttle observing millions of Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) emerge from Bracken Cave in Texas.
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