Response to Inappropriate Coverage of Bats and Ebola in Smithsonian Publication

Response to Smithsonian story, “Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?”
Merlin Tuttle
5/9/17

 

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 However, when it comes to fruit bats and Ebola it is based on outdated speculation that threatens serious harm to a group of mammals that is already in alarming decline.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.

Hundreds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) beginning their evening departure from a city park in Ivory Coast, Africa. Cities often provide the only homes safe from commercial hunters who sell them for people to eat. Despite such large numbers having lived in close association with humans throughout recorded history, they have not caused disease outbreaks. Their remarkable safety record casts grave doubt on recent speculation of their being dangerous carriers of disease.

Even now, millions of bats safely share cities with us, as here in Austin, Texas. Nor is there any credible evidence of epidemics among the millions of humans who eat bats. Finally, neither I nor hundreds of other bat researchers have contracted an “emerging disease” from a bat, despite our very close association. I for example, have spent more than 55 years studying and handling hundreds of species of bats worldwide, often surrounded by millions at a time in caves, and I remain healthy. Like veterinarians, I am vaccinated against rabies, because I am sometimes bitten in self-defense by animals I handle. Yet I have never been protected against any of the diseases about which we are now being warned.

The current campaign to associate bats with scary diseases often gets large numbers of bats killed no matter what else is said, and large colonies are extremely vulnerable.

To put risk in perspective, in the past 20 years, SARS, Hendra, Nipa, Marburg, Ebola and MERS combined have accounted for fewer than 20,000 human deaths worldwide. Clearly, “emerging diseases” account for no more than a minuscule amount of human mortality, most of which is far easier to prevent. Thus the currently popular focus is a huge misappropriation of limited public health resources that harms both bats and humans.

 

Merlin’s response has been posted in the comment section of the article as well as emailed via the Smithsonian contact page. You are invited to do the same.

 

Even in cities like Abidjan in Ivory Coast, Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) are intensely hunted by teenage boys who earn a good income selling them for people to eat. Though over hunting poses a threat to these bats’ survival, there is no evidence that the people who eat them contract diseases as a result. This casts serious doubt on claims that bats are dangerous sources of disease.

 

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Return of “Batgirl” Alexis

Alexis won 1st place & Grand Champ, the 2017 SASEF Regional Science Fair.

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.

“Hello Mr. & Mrs. Tuttle, (more…)

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New Publication in Defense of Bats

Read Merlin’s article, Give Bats a Break, in the Spring 2017 edition of Issues in Science and Technology. This report is based on Merlin’s review of thousands of scientific papers and popular media stories. And it is the first to expose how sensational speculation is fostering bad science in a self-perpetuating cycle of misdirected public health funding that threatens the future of bats. This is an issue that we cannot ignore.

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Praise for Speaking Up for Neglected Bats – BAT FLASH

Praise for Speaking Up for Neglected Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
3/17/17

Many thanks to Anthropocene for their timely alert, Wind energy is tough on bats—but it doesn’t have to be that way, by Brandon Keim in their March 15, 2017 issue.

Over the past decade a growing number of peer-reviewed research publications have reported likely-to-be-unsustainable bat kills at wind turbines, also reporting that kills could be reduced by 44-90% by slightly delaying turbine cut-in speeds (the wind speeds at which turbines are activated to begin rotating to produce energy) during the bats’ fall migration.

Merlin Tuttle and Jessica Kern examine bats killed by wind turbines in West Virginia, where Merlin led early efforts to minimize bat kills.

The best available calculations indicate that by implementing these changes, annual power output would be reduced by less than 1%. Yet only a few companies have acted on even these economically feasible recommendations, despite repeated warnings that whole species could be threatened with extinction without prompt action. Keim raises the obvious question, “how people already know so much about solving the problem, yet do so little.” The answer seems obvious—Too many people still don’t know, and too many of us who do have remained silent for too long.

Please take a moment to thank author, Brandon Keim, and the editorial staff at Anthropocene for reminding readers that alarming and growing numbers of ecologically essential bats are being killed needlessly by carelessly operated wind turbines.

TAKE ACTION!

  • Choose any or all means of contact to reach out and send thanks in your own words.
    • Send a Contact Form to Anthropocene Magazine. Be sure to include the article, author and editors by name when you thank them for their much needed reporting on bats.
      • Lindsey Doermann, Founder, Senior Editor, Anthropocene Magazine
      • Kathryn Kohm, Founder, Editor-in-Chief, Anthropocene Magazine
      • Brandon Keim, author
    • Twitter
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A hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus) in Texas. These bats are long-distance migrators, some traveling all the way from Canada to Mexico and back each fall and spring. Large numbers are now being killed needlessly by careless production of wind energy.

 

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BAT FLASH! Sensational NPR Story Threatens Bats

Sensational National Public Radio Story Threatens Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
2/14/17

 

Unfortunately, the normally objective and reliable NPR, in its broadcast interview titled, Why Killer Viruses Are On The Rise, has joined in spreading irresponsibly sensational fear of bats. The interview with a “virus hunter” is set in a Bornean rainforest. In the preamble, the announcer notes that, “It’s where deadly viruses hide out, waiting their chance to leap into a person and then spread around the world.”

 

At a time when bats and rainforests are both in alarming decline, and in desperate need of protection, the program goes on to portray them in the scariest of terms. The reporter notes that rainforests “have lots of crazy animals” that “have lots of crazy viruses” and explains that what the virus hunter “really wants is to catch a bat.”

When the first bat is caught it is described as cute, but the reporter quickly points out that, “bats are arguably one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They triggered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the pandemic of killer pneumonia back in 2003, that was called SARS, and they’re behind one of the viruses scientists think could cause the next big one, Nipah.” This is unproven speculation reported as fact. But it gets even worse.

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Australian Flying Foxes Need Help

By Merlin Tuttle
1/10/17

As one who in 1985 played a lead role in convincing the New South Wales (NSW) Minister for the Environment and Planning, Bob Carr, to provide statewide protection for flying foxes, I am extremely disappointed to see  such progress reversed decades later by a predecessor. Grey-headed flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers upon which many of Australia’s unique plants and animals rely.

Nevertheless, their numbers have declined dramatically over the past hundred years. They first were massively exterminated by fruit growers, because during periodic droughts, when forests failed to flower, starving bats would invade orchards. Thanks to excellent research, orchards can now be protected. However, the bats’ traditional roosting habitats often have been overrun by urbanization. Once again these bats are in trouble, often with few options remaining. In small numbers, they may be enjoyed. But during unpredictable spikes in gum tree flowering, these sophisticated commuters can be attracted long distances. When bats weighing up to two pounds and having wingspans of more than three feet suddenly increase by as much as 10-fold, noise and odor can become a serious problem.

Gray-headed and other flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers for Australian forests. However, they are killed in massive numbers during occasional droughts when native trees fail to flower, forcing them to resort ot orchard fruit which could be protected with netting.
Gray-headed and other flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers for Australian forests. This grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) pollinating a rose gum tree (Angophora costata). Flying foxes are the continent’s most important long-distance pollinators and seed dispersers. However, they are killed in massive numbers during occasional droughts when native trees fail to flower, forcing them to resort to orchard fruit which could be protected with netting.

Excellent means of protecting fruit orchards have been developed, but urban nuisances have not yet been studied sufficiently to find viable solutions. As flying fox experts, Justin Welbergen and Peggy Eby recently explained in their insightful article, Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying foxes in urban Australiagrey-headed flying foxes can travel thousands of kilometers in a single year and quickly respond to changing conditions far beyond the boundaries of any one state. To resolve nuisances without loss of essential services, we must learn much more about what attracts them to specific roosts and how best to provide suitable alternatives when their choices create nuisances. (more…)

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Response to long-term oil & gas draft permit proposal

Merlin has been asked to comment on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposal to prepare a draft of a 50-year environmental impact statement that will affect bats and humans.

Proposal Summary–The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announces their intent to prepare a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for proposed issuance of an incidental take permit (ITP) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the draft Oil & Gas Coalition Multi-State Habitat Conservation Plan (O&G HCP). The O&G HCP is being developed to streamline environmental permitting and compliance with the ESA for nine companies in conjunction with their respective midstream and upstream oil and gas exploration, production, and maintenance activities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia over a 50-year period. The companies have indicated that they intend to request ITP coverage for five bat species: The endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), the threatened northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), the eastern small-footed bat (Myotis leibii), and the tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus).

For more information and details about the intended proposal, click HERE.

Merlin has provided his statement below after discussing the proposal with a U.S. FWS representative.

We invite you to leave your comments as well via this link. The deadline for comments is December 27th.

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The Power of Bat Photos

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Stellaluna was brilliantly written and beautifully illustrated by one of our first Bat Fans, Janell Cannon. It’s the story of a baby fruit bat who gets separated from its mother. Since publication in 1993 this book has been translated into 30 languages. Stellaluna is a classic that significantly helped to endear kids, big and small, to if not love bats, at least appreciate them better, much the same as Merlin’s photographs.

 

In fact, Janell credits Merlin’s 1986 National Geographic article “Gentle Flyers of the African Night,” about epauletted fruit bats, for inspiring Stellaluna.

Janell recently emailed Merlin to share one of her community presentations, explaining how much she appreciated free use of his website photos. We love, love, love this kind of feedback! It Illustrates one of the many ways our website photos are making a difference for bats. As Bat Fan numbers grow, we’re happy to see the wide variety of creative uses individuals and institutions are making of our website gallery. Please share with us how you’re using our photos in your corner of the world to make it better for bats and people. (more…)

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