While the public continues to be pummeled with scary claims of dire threats of disease from bats, Merlin has been rallying crucial leadership collaboration from within the international research community. In September, he provided an hour lecture, followed by an enthusiastic hour-long discussion, for virologists and epidemiologists at Brazil’s Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. And several days later he provided the keynote address for a joint annual meeting of Brazil’s Bat and Mammal Societies, with special attention to helping conservation-minded students.
In November, Merlin presented the inaugural address for a joint meeting of the Biology and Ecology Societies of Chile. A key concern there involved how to prevent bat killing due to irresponsible warnings of disease. Amazingly, even in a country where only one person in all history had died of a bat disease (rabies), fear of bats due to exaggerated media stories reportedly is posing a serious threat to conservation progress. Concerned attendees at the conference were delighted to learn of our disease resources and other information and photos available for their use. They were also most appreciative for advice on expanding threats from wind energy and pesticides. Merlin additionally agreed to provide photos for the bat section of a new book on Chilean mammals.
The November 23, 2017 issue of THE CONVERSATION lures readers with an important sounding, bat-friendly title, “Can bats help humans survive the next pandemic?” However, two-thirds of the article is devoted to promoting fear instead of progress and is based on questionable sources. This is particularly disturbing given the publication’s stated objective—“Fight for Truth in Journalism.”
This story is a simple repeat of close to a decade of often exaggerated speculation attempting to link viruses found in bats to transmission of scary but relatively rare ones like SARS and MERS to humans. Documented transmission of any disease from bats to humans remains exceedingly rare. And no one has successfully shown transmission of SARS or MERS from bats to other mammals. Dromedary camels are now well known to have been the source of MERS in humans for decades, likely longer.
This story further repeats the poorly founded claim that bat species harbor more coronaviruses than any other group of mammals, assuming without validation, that this makes them uniquely dangerous. The claim is based on a study of fewer than half of the world’s bat families, presumably those that are the largest, most widespread and diverse, the ones most likely to harbor the highest viral diversity. These were then inappropriately assumed to be representative of the remainder that were less diverse and widely distributed as well as less colonial.
Sampled species were not reported, nor was their roosting or feeding behavior. Since the large majority of viral fragments detected came from feces, many could have come from arthropod carriers eaten by bats. This could falsely lead to the conclusion that bat vector controllers instead serve as reservoirs. Despite such biases, these results are now reported as documented facts.
One can only wonder how so many biases can be so consistently overlooked, despite historical evidence that huge bat colonies, even in cities, make safe and highly beneficial neighbors. Unfortunately, scaring us about bats has proven lucrative in gaining large research grants for projects of questionable value. It also seriously threatens some of our planet’s most endangered and valuable animals. Finally, this story provides no new discoveries of how bats might help prevent pandemics, as its title implies. Bats are indeed, largely immune to major human threats, such as cancer and arthritis, and when research objectives are revised, may provide a goldmine of useful discovery.
My comments can be seen at the end of THE CONVERSATION article. We encourage you to do the same in your own words by following the directions below. Also, we encourage you to freely contact the editors and authors of any similarly negative articles you find.
Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate attempts to create needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article in order for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!
Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to the staff at THE CONVERSATION and share your opinion about this unfair bias against bats in your own words.
Contact the editors. Be sure to include the article and author information.
“Actually this article neglected to mention another huge problem caused by these negative representations of bats. It’s not just about deliberate human killings of bats – even where bats are not being killed by people, the repercussions of this negative reputation are still damaging in indirect ways because it affects efforts and funding for research and conservation. I am currently the only person working on the conservation ecology of Pteropus in Malaysia, where there has been such a disproportionate amount of attention, effort, and money put into researching ONLY the virology and public health aspects of these bats. Hardly anyone is interested in looking at the conservation ecology aspect; never mind that these bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers, and are severely threatened by hunting – all topics which desperately require more attention and work. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be constantly approached by other researchers who are only interested in collaborating on virology, or to be told that I can only get funding if I include a disease and public health aspect in my project. Ultimately these bats will go extinct if people – including researchers and funders – are simply too focused on worrying about whether we’re going to catch diseases from them, instead of trying to mitigate the threats that we humans present to them. This kind of attitude is very, very damaging to bat conservation.”
Dr. Aziz is one of a very few researchers in her part of the world dedicated to helping people understand the economic and ecological importance of conserving flying foxes. Her research titled, “Pollination by the locally endangered island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) enhances fruit production of the economically important durian (Durio zibethinus),” recently appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution.
In her paper, she provides information critical to convincing islanders to protect flying foxes, namely that they are playing a key role as pollinators of one of Southeast Asia’s most valued crops, not causing damage as previously believed. She used camera and video traps to document that island flying foxes (Pteropus hyomelanus) do not damage durian flowers, as even some researchers had suspected. Video traps clearly absolved the bats. Island flying foxes and cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea) are major pollinators. The damage was caused by plantain squirrels (Callosciurus notatus) who often ate immature flowers.
Aziz also notes that flying foxes sometimes can become a nuisance when roosting too near people, causing both noise and odor problems. She hopes to find a way to harmlessly convince these bats to move farther away, so they will be more welcome. There is an urgent need for education to minimize negative biases while solving legitimate nuisances. Aziz emphasizes the need to find solutions to real problems instead of needlessly scaring people about rare threats.
She reports, “I have been using your [Merlin Tuttle’s] photos, especially the amazing shots of P. vampyrus, in all the presentations I give. It’s enormously helpful because the only shots I have of that species are the poor dead ones shot by a hunter, and it’s not a very nice picture at all. I think it would be almost impossible for me to get a good photo of P. vampyrus here in Malaysia! Your close-up shots of Pteropus pollinating and feeding on fruit are also particularly useful for illustrating bat ecosystem services – I used these in a public talk I gave, at an event organized by the Malaysian Heritage and History Club, which was very well received. And of course, I also used your photos in the awareness video! I now use them anytime I want to talk about bat ecosystem services.”
Aziz is devoting her career to helping people solve problems while benefiting from the essential contributions of flying foxes. If bats are to survive in sufficient numbers to fulfil their critical environmental and ecological roles, Aziz, and many more like her will need all the help they can get. Just saving a few endangered remnants is not enough!
We first met Alexis Valentine and her mother Amy, when Merlin spoke at an annual Discover Life in America conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2014. We’ve kept in touch ever since, encouraging her research and competition in local and regional science fairs. We were thrilled to hear that she had been awarded a full scholarship to represent the U.S. at the 14th Annual Jr. Foresters Science/Research Competition in Moscow, Russia. Forty-five participants from 28 countries and five continents presented projects, September 2-10 and Alexis won second place out of 40 awards. At 15, she was the youngest competitor to win an award, and also was the highest ranking American contestant in the competition’s history.
Last week, she did a fine job of presenting her research on the impact of white-nose syndrome on bats in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the annual teacher’s workshop held in conjunction with the NASBR 47th Annual Symposium on Bat Research in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Knowing Alexis had long dreamed of owning her own ultrasonic bat detectors for her research and public presentations, Merlin took the opportunity to introduce her to Ian Agranat, President of Wildlife Acoustics, the worlds’ largest producer of wildlife monitoring devices. Their Echo Meter Touch 2 Pro bat detector is one on Merlin’s favorite tools for introducing the public to bats, and he was delighted when Ian made Alexis’ long-time dream of owning her own equipment come true through his generous gifts which covered all her needs.
I wholeheartedly applaud Atlantic Monthly’s defense of bats at a time when so many other publications are spreading grossly exaggerated stories attempting to link bats to some of the world’s rarest but also scariest diseases. Bats have never needed help more, nor have we needed them more! As the one who persuaded the citizens of Austin to protect instead of eradicating its now world-famous colony, I’m proud to report that none of millions of tourists who come to enjoy their spectacular emergences has ever been harmed. By simply leaving bats alone (not attempting to handle them), we have exceedingly little to fear and much to gain. Our bats eat tons of crop and yard pests every summer night and attract millions of tourist dollars each year.
Thanks to people who increasingly understand and help bats, even those species most devastated by WNS are gradually beginning to recover. The only cure will come from improved protection and restoration of key bat habitats, especially their hibernation caves. It’s far too late, as well as impractical, to find a cure for WNS. Going forward, all resources should be devoted to recovery.
While leading news media, from The Wall Street Journal to Time magazine, were maligning bats with an unprecedented flood of scary stories threatening terrible disease pandemics, Merlin was busy setting the record straight.
Once again, bats are plagued with a rash of sensational bat-attack and bat-disease stories, promoted by clever, but unscrupulous persons who know better. The motivation remains the same—greedy competition for public health funding. As noted by Mexico’s leading bat biologist and conservationist, Dr. Rodrigo Medellin, “unsupported statements and partial truths have been cleverly interwoven to present a picture that bats are the most dangerous, filthy, pathogen-harboring organisms on earth.” So-called virus hunters are linking already feared bats with deadly, but rare diseases, misleading governments to invest billions of dollars in projects of questionable value in saving human lives (USCDC 2015).
The current article in The Independent, is typical, first the scary headline that leaves a lasting impression on readers, despite later qualifiers, most of which go unread. The subtitle says, “Diseases in bats have been around for a long time and historically have not been a problem. Now, there is cause for concern.”
Those promoting this international campaign of fear are clever wordsmithers. They know just enough about bats and diseases to almost imperceptibly distort the truth, scaring people about potential, but unlikely events. Extremely low risks are made to seem imminent and possibly disastrous. And since neither bats nor viruses are well understood, they are ideal victims for such manipulation.
The article claims bats have been attacking humans in increasing numbers because their natural habitats are being destroyed through deforestation. This is a commonly propagated myth in recent scare stories. It appears to be an attempt to look like the writer isn’t anti-bat, but is simply attempting to be helpful. Bats nearly everywhere are in decline, and a growing proportion of the human population now lives in cities where there is less, rather than more likelihood of contact with bats. A veterinary college professor is quoted as saying that expanding cities are causing increasing contact—just the opposite of reality. The professor sounds like a reliable source, though he likely has no personal experience with bats.
It is reported that more than 40 people were bitten by vampires in just three months, with one death from rabies. But that’s in all of northeastern Brazil. This is likely one of the rarest causes of mortality that could have been reported for such a large area. Far more deaths likely occurred from bicycle accidents or dog attacks, though no one is likely to advocate ridding the area of bicycles or dogs!
The story verifies our worst concerns, reporting that authorities are “trying to control the bats, poisoning them and removing their roosting sites.” Highly beneficial species form the largest, most conspicuous colonies so they are the ones most easily found, becoming innocent victims of mass killing. In the current article, a doctor stresses that “Brazilian authorities must take the threat seriously.” And an accompanying photo shows an insect-eating bat, looking exceptionally vicious because it is snarling in self-defense.
Not until the next to last paragraph is it admitted that “Bats in the UK do not pose a threat to the human population.” This nearly universally repeated approach gives authors a disclaimer, but it appears deliberately located where it is least likely to be noticed.
Choose any or all means of contact to reach out and share your opinion in your own words.
Send a Contact Form to The Independent. Be sure to include the article and author information.
Loss of natural homes in caves and old-growth forests is one of the greatest causes of bat decline worldwide. Unfortunately, many former roosts can never be replaced, leaving an increasingly urgent need for alternative shelter. Wildlife Biologist, Steve Barlow, was one of the first to test the suitability of extra large designs, and he has been experimenting for nearly 20 years. Recently he has supplied his Big Bat House design to nature centers, city parks, wildlife refuges, farmers and private landowners.
Last October, Merlin met with Steve and they agreed to collaborate in developing a new, design that they hope will be even more attractive to bats. Their research proposal was generously funded by MTBC members, Joe and Sharon Goldston, with additional help from Steve. In early April Merlin spent two days with Steve and his construction crew in Kansas brainstorming anticipated improvements.
The result is a new modular design that is much less costly to build and lighter in weight. We also anticipate it’s being even more attractive to bats. It can be mounted on just two instead of four poles, and when a first module fills, more can be added, each one housing up to 4,000 bats. Based on past experience it is quite likely that, at some locations tens of thousands can be attracted, as ability to expand will be unlimited.
In early May, the first modules were installed on three farms in Florida, under Steve’s supervision. Test sites were each surrounded by a different kind of agricultural use in anticipation of a second research phase to investigate the bats’ impact on crop pests. Assuming bat acceptance, this should be a big step.
Two additional modules of the same design will be shipped for testing in Panama, hopefully to be installed by July. The first will be in a lowland rice-growing area, the second in a mountainous nature reserve. We believe all five sites have excellent potential to attract colonies in their first year, but we’ll have to be patient! Merlin’s first extra large roost, built at the University of Florida in Gainesville, took three years to attract bats. However, the colony rapidly grew to roughly 250,000!
Response to Smithsonian story, “Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?” Merlin Tuttle
Lorraine Boissoneault’s story, Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?, is clearly well intended. However, when it comes to fruit bats and Ebola it is based on outdated speculation that threatens serious harm to a group of mammals that is already in alarming decline. For a summary of current knowledge of bats versus Ebola and other rare, but so-called emerging diseases, and their speculated association with bats, I refer you to my article in the current edition of Issues in Science and Technology, titled “Give Bats a Break.”
Diseases that are millions of years old, but that are just now being discovered due to their rarity, are being referred to as “emerging” as an apparent public relations ploy to make them sound more dangerous. And speculating associations with bats makes them even more scary, since many people already fear bats. This has proven unprecedentedly effective in gaining hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to support so-called virus hunters, who must continue speculating about potentially dire threats from bat diseases to keep their grants flowing.
Bats historically have one of the world’s finest records of living safely with humans, first in caves and thatched huts, then in log cabins.
I have a very special treat, especially for those of you who have wondered what our bat prodigy, Alexis Valentine, has been up to lately. We met Alexis following one of Merlin’s lectures in 2014. She had been winning science fair prizes for her work with bats and speaking annually at the local Rotary Club since the third grade. She also had begun her own research on bats in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Read past blog posts, Letters from a Young Scientist 1 – 10) Alexis still keeps in touch, and we are very proud of Batgirl! She’s still competing and winning in science fairs, speaking at professional bat conferences, conducting continuing bat research in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and enlightening folks about the many benefits of bats to people. I hope you enjoy reading about Alexis’ most recent activities in her own words as much as I do. Please join me in giving her a big “atta(bat)girl”! For young people interested in starting their own early careers in science and conservation, Merlin has just posted a new resource, titled Advice for Young People Interested in Science and Conservation.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 50 years of in-depth knowledge and experience Merlin Tuttle, renowned bat expert, educator and wildlife photographer founded MTBC with one true goal in mind; teaching the world to understand and appreciate the vital contributions bats make to human beings and the world we live in.