A Terrifying Time for Bats

A Terrifying Time for Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
7/2/17

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.

An adult male Straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum) from Kenya. This is the species first blamed for the “index case” of Ebola in the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. The species was soon exonerated. In fact, it is so resistant to Ebola that it is an unlikely source. Recent studies suggest a source other than bats.

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

Thai women collecting guano in Rakang Cave. These women spend countless thousands of hours sweeping up the guano and bagging it while being pooped on by hundreds of thousands of fruit- and insect-eating bats high overhead and report no ill effects.

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

Children begin helping collect guano almost as soon as they can walk.
It seems that, if disease from bats was a serious threat, certainly these happy children, working in Thailand’s Khao Chong Phran Cave should have been short-lived! While taking these photos, I wasn’t protected from any of the so-called “emerging diseases,” nor have I been protected anywhere else, and over decades of time, I too have remained healthy.
I first met this 96-year-old guano-collector in Thailand’s Rakang Cave in 1981. When I returned 31 years later, Siri Tanomsri and his only slightly younger, also guano-collecting, wife remained in outstanding health despite decades of working in a bat cave. Such historic evidence simply doesn’t support recent speculation that exposure to bats is dangerous.

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

Tourists observing 1.5 million free-tailed bats emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas. When these bats began moving into newly created crevices beneath this mid-town bridge, health officials warned they were rabid and dangerous. Yet, by simply posting small signs asking visitors not to handle the bats, no one has been harmed in more than 35 years of mutually beneficial coexistence.

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 

The famous bat colony in Austin, Texas, consumes tons of crop and yard pests nightly, attracts millions of tourist dollars annually, and has harmed no one. Learning to live harmoniously with bats promotes public health by maintaining a safer environment with fewer pesticides. For anyone who simply doesn’t handle bats, the odds of harm are too remote to measure.

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.

 

 

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Bat Flash! Nature Sensationalizes Bat Coronaviruses

By Merlin Tuttle
6/13/17

The June 12, 2017 story by Amy Maxmen, titled “Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses,” published in Nature, continues the needlessly sensational presentation of bats as exceptionally dangerous animals. By simple insertion of the words “global” and “deadly” in the title, it implies bats worldwide to be a serious menace to human health.

The article begins by stating that “Bats are the major animal reservoir for coronaviruses worldwide….” In the reported study, nearly twice as many bats as rodents, shrews, and primates combined were examined, not surprising. The emphasis on easily captured bats, likely centered on colonial species, is an approach that appears to have become the norm. And it’s impossible to know the extent of resulting bias.

A Chinese horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus sinicus) from Hong Kong. It has been suggested that a coronavirus found in this species is the direct ancestor of the virus that causes SARS. Nevertheless, despite seemingly endless speculation, no experiment has ever shown these, or any other bats, to be capable of transmitting a coronavirus to primates or other animals.

Late in the article, it is admitted that at least some of the newly discovered coronaviruses pose no “immediate threat to human health,” though insertion of the word “immediate” still implies they may be in the future. Because only a small fraction of coronaviruses infect humans, diversity in bats is not necessarily an indicator of risk.

At the end, where least likely to be noticed, it is admitted that such exhaustive searches for new viruses may be a waste of resources. Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, is quoted as saying “that researchers and politicians should direct their limited resources towards halting new outbreaks of pathogens that are known to be deadly in people, rather than trying to predict which virus will be the next to cross over to humans.”

Osterholm is further quoted that “We aren’t much better prepared for Ebola today than we were during the crisis in West Africa, so you have to wonder if we aren’t preparing for the outbreaks we know will happen in the near future, what good does it do to know about spillover events?”

Since bats appear to have an exceptionally good record of not causing disease outbreaks in humans, even where large colonies share major cities with us, Osterholm’s point seems strong.

 

 

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The Chinese Horseshoe Bat ranges from northern India to southern China. Horseshoe Bats are so named due to their horseshoe-shaped nose-leaves. They are often found in caves or cave-like locations and feed mostly on small moths. They use exceptionally high frequency echolocation to avoid detection by moths that listen for bat sounds, thereby attempting to avoid capture. This one is eating a moth in flight.

 

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Behind the Latest Ebola Story in Science

By Merlin Tuttle
6/7/17

Virologists are still doggedly pursuing the search for an Ebola reservoir in bats, as reported in the story titled Hunting for Ebola among the Bats of the Congo in the June 1, 2017 issue of Science (Kupferschmudt 2017), apparently attempting to ignore mounting evidence pointing elsewhere. The record of unsubstantiated speculation, attributing Ebola to bats is long and becoming an embarrassment to good science.

By 2014, researchers had discovered that 10% of gorillas in Central Africa have antibodies to Ebola, demonstrating that exposure or infection is not uniformly lethal as previously reported (Reed et al. 2014). Because great apes were said to be highly susceptible, virologists had insisted they couldn’t serve as reservoirs. Instead they pointed to bats.

A hammer-headed bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) eating a rose apple (Eugenia jambos) in Ivory Coast. This species is now the central focus of the Ebola reservoir search reported in Science. It is a key seed disperser in areas in need of reforestation.

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Slate Magazine Goes to Bat for Bats

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 slateoffice@slate.com.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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    • 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.
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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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BAT FLASH! Countering Irresponsible Speculation that Threatens both Bats and Public Health

What’s going on?
The October 26, 2016 issue of ScienceDaily published an especially misleading story that poses a direct threat to both bats and public health. In this story, a fragment of an influenza A-like virus was discovered in a Latin American fruit-eating bat. The initial conclusion was that it posed “little, if any, pandemic threat to humans.”

A little yellow-shouldered bat (Sturnira lilium), an invaluable seed disperser, now prematurely speculated to be dangerous.
A little yellow-shouldered bat (Sturnira lilium), an invaluable seed disperser, now prematurely speculated to be dangerous.

A team of lab scientists then used this new influenza-like material to bio-engineer a new influenza virus. To do this, they analyzed cells from over 30 different viral species for their capacity to become hosts. Then the cell that was most susceptible to the engineered virus was tested and found capable of infecting a variety of cells, including those of humans.

The resulting publication ends with this self-serving justification. “Bats are natural hosts for several highly pathogenic viruses. In the past, Ebola and rabies virus were repeatedly transmitted from bats to humans and caused deadly diseases. The new observation that human cells can be infected with bat influenza A-like viruses is a hint that these viruses could also potentially be transmitted to humans. Although there is no evidence yet for such transmissions, the new findings are a wake-up call for more research.”

The claim that Ebola has been repeatedly transmitted from bats to humans is false, completely lacking in scientific documentation, and the authors fail to admit that bat-transmitted rabies is one of our planet’s rarest human disease threats. It’s time to focus on real threats, like cancer and obesity. (more…)

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