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.
At the annual banquet of the National Speleological Society, in New Mexico, he thanked members for their invaluable service to bats over the past 40 years, especially mentioning their volunteered help in reporting key bat caves in need of protection, designing and building the world’s finest protective gates at hundreds of locations, and helping educate cave owners regarding bat values and needs. He also credited them with leadership essential to recovery of the federally endangered gray bat (Myotis grisescens) and thanked them for their generous help during the white-nose syndrome (WNS) crisis.
Merlin has since agreed to collaborate with National Speleological Society leadership on behalf of improving management policies to better protect important caves for both bats and cavers.
As the featured speaker for the Association of Medical Illustrators 2017 annual conference, Merlin was asked to share his “Win friends, not battles” conservation philosophy. Of course, they also enthusiastically learned a lot about bats as well! The group’s real mission is medical education, making them an ideal audience at a time when there are so many gross exaggerations linking bats to disease.
Many stayed to ask questions for an extra 45 minutes. At a time when so many disagreements become too confrontational to permit reasoned progress, Merlin’s positive approaches struck a special cord.
A Terrifying Time for Bats By Merlin Tuttle
The past month has seen a virtual explosion of premature speculation presented as though it were now proven fact, much of it traceable to a single article titled, “Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses,” that appeared in the June 14, 2017 issue of Nature. We’ve already issued a Bat Flash alert responding to this article, and to predecessors, all apparently part of a single cleverly planned campaign.
Sensational speculation has become widely cited as fact1, with spin-off damage that will be exceedingly difficult to reverse. All who truly care about bats have cause to be deeply concerned.
Due to scary speculation attempting to link the SARS outbreak of 2002 to bats, bats have recently become central in the search for viruses2. Thus, rapid advances in viral detection alone may have caused major bias. Also, the number of viruses found in bats is not necessarily indicative of risk.2 Many viruses are innocuous or even beneficial,3 including some that are closely related to deadly ones.4 Finally, the paper in question is based on models, and models are notorious for mistaken conclusions, regardless of the amount of data analyzed.5
A far more meaningful analysis should have considered the historic rarity of viral spillover from bats to humans. Many media stories now claim bats to be the primary source of so-called “emerging infectious diseases” like Ebola, though most of these speculations remain unproven.6- 7
Proponents of such speculation still cannot explain why hundreds of bat biologists, millions of people who eat bats, and the millions more who share cities with huge bat colonies are no less healthy than others. They can’t explain why bats artificially infected with Ebola haven’t become contagious or why virologists haven’t even been able to find live virus in the thousands of bats examined. Certainly, like all other mammals, bats must be capable of harboring at least a few dangerous viruses. Nevertheless, bats still have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with humans.1
Michael Osterholm, director at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, notes that scientists should be careful to distinguish between what is possible and what is likely. He points out that rabies, for example, is widespread in bats and readily infects humans. However, “If that was enough for transmission we should all be dying of bat rabies in the U.S.” The virus can be transmitted only if an infected bat bites a human. That rarely happens, so transmission is rare.2
Additionally, we must question why so many limited health resources are being diverted to some of the world’s rarest diseases. Even if we lump all these together (including SARS, MERS, Nipa, Hendra, Marburg and Ebola) they have caused fewer than 20,000 deaths in two decades.8 In contrast, dog-transmitted rabies alone kills 60,000 humans annually9 with hardly a ripple of comment. And even that is tiny compared to other sources of human mortality, such as obesity10, which are far easier to prevent.
The only logical explanation for such a skewed emphasis appears to be solicitation of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants11for otherwise difficult-to-justify research.1 The last campaign against bats centered on rabies, rendering bat conservation nearly impossible in the 1970’s, while huge profits went to rabies and pest control industries.12 This time the profits are going to virus hunters11 with even more potential for harming bats.
Anyone paying attention will see a regularly repeated strategy. Over and over, the most sensationally exaggerated stories cite the same virus hunting scientists and their organization.13-16 They present themselves as bat-loving conservationists, but it’s time to ask if perhaps they don’t love big grants a bit more than bats!
Their strategy is becoming quite clear. Begin with a sensational headline, followed by a few paragraphs of apparently supporting statements from similarly motivated scientists. Appear to be bat conservation-minded by often saying that it’s not the bats’ fault. It’s because we’re invading their territory. 11,13-16 Sometimes (far from consistent) ending with an admission that the speculation has yet to be proven, including qualifying statements that bats are valuable and should never be killed. Never mind abundant evidence that people don’t tolerate, and often kill, animals they fear, particularly if bats are believed to be disease-laden.12
As in the Nature example, most subsequent reports focus on the sensational beginning, often completely omitting the more moderate ending, exactly what a clever PR firm, attempting to foment fear of bats would advise. Unfortunately, it’s working like magic for scientists who know better. Their greed isn’t just harming bats. It’s also harming public health,1 and eventually will compromise the credibility of science in general at a time when it is most needed.
Currently, there is no better way to help bats than for readers to complain to publishers of irresponsible stories. We have already addressed the original one in Nature, but the many subsequent publishers, who typically focused only on the worst elements, also should be contacted. We encourage you to continue sharing your opinions with them and thank you for your participation on behalf of bats thus far.
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!
Countering a huge, international disease scare campaign against bats is extremely challenging, but thanks to the loyal support of our uniquely dedicated members the truth is being heard, as seen in this week’s issue of Slate magazine. We are unfortunately still the only conservation organization brave enough to counter this international campaign backed by hundreds of millions of dollars. Promoters of fear are increasingly portraying themselves as bat conservationists attempting to help bats. They say bats are valuable and shouldn’t be killed, but their grossly exaggerated disease warnings remain deadly, no less than back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s when nearly everyone in America was led to believe that most bats were rabid. The impact on conservation efforts was devastating. States with the most indefensibly large rabies budgets led the propaganda, aided by unscrupulous pest control companies. However, states where health departments intensely publicized bats as dangerous achieved no reduction in human rabies compared to states that simply advised evaluation of all animal bites.
Too few of us today remember that, after Rachael Carson got DDT outlawed for general use in America, our CDC insisted on obtaining a special exemption so it could continue to use DDT to kill bats in buildings. Even now, our CDC has a policy that Canada and the State of Oregon have rejected, based on independent scientific evaluation.
A large proportion of remaining bats have had to take refuge in buildings, having lost their traditional roosts in caves and old growth forests. Yet I’m seeing a gradual return to the days of big bat business for exterminators. Now, they try to look like conservationists by including mention of how beneficial bats are and advising that they should not be killed while simultaneously attempting to scare people into hiring their eviction services, which less conspicuously still kills bats. With all the devastation already wrought by WNS in the U.S., the timing for intolerance couldn’t be worse.
That’s why we urge you to compliment Slate on setting the record straight. Leave a comment on the article, call (212) 445-5330 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Book Review: Conservation and Ecology of Pennsylvania’s Bats By Merlin Tuttle
Conservation and Ecology of Pennsylvania’s Bats, edited by C.M. Butchkoski, D.M. Reeder, G.G. Turner, and H.P. Whidden. 2017, is a publication of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. Twenty-eight contributors cover a wide variety of conservation-relevant topics. It summarizes the key ecological and economic roles of bats and traces the history of bat research and conservation efforts in Pennsylvania, which has one of America’s finest records of conserving bats.
A Wind Energy Voluntary Cooperation Agreement is reported to have gained beneficial results. However, the environmental review process does not cover most of the state’s species. And at least one of the state’s largest companies has refused to participate. The potentially serious, yet inadequately documented wind energy impacts on bats remain as unresolved threats. (more…)
Sensational National Public Radio Story Threatens Bats By Merlin Tuttle
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.
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.