Epidemiologists Acknowledge Virus Hunting as a Costly Waste

By Merlin Tuttle
6/15/18

Leading epidemiologists are finally acknowledging that the recently huge expenditures for virus hunting (mostly focused on bats) have little practical value in disease prevention. The June 7 issue of Nature contains a key paper titled, “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction.” In it Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Anderson combine their expertise to advocate a much-needed change of course in prevention of viral transmission from animals to humans, one that may also considerably brighten the future of bats.

They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises about disease prevention.” They “urge those working on infectious disease to focus funds and efforts on a much simpler and cost-effective way to mitigate outbreaks—proactive, real-time surveillance of human populations.”

Bats have an exceptional record of living safely with humans. But, they have been disproportionately searched, and victimized by virus hunter speculation, apparently because they are unpopular and easy to sample. This is an Angolan free-tailed bat (Mops condylurus), a species targeted for eradication following premature speculation linking it to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

These experts explain that predicting when and where a virus will emerge in people is misguided and unlikely to be achievable. Determining which of an estimated 1.6 million animal viruses, deemed to be potentially capable of transmission to humans, would also prove prohibitively costly. They conclude that “given the rarity of outbreaks and the complexity of host-pathogen interactions, it is arrogant to imagine that we could use such surveys to predict and mitigate the emergence of disease.”

Currently, the most effective way to fight outbreaks is to monitor human populations in the countries and locations that are most vulnerable. Recommended actions include detailed screening and isolation of people exhibiting difficult-to-diagnose symptoms and monitoring of animal die-offs.

This is not the first warning against recent investment of billions of dollars on viral witch hunts that unfortunately have focused primarily on bats. Nevertheless, it appears to be the first to be taken seriously by a major journal of science.

On June 17, 2017, Nature published a paper, “Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses,” which claimed that finding these viruses could help predict where they are likely to make the next jump from animals to humans. After supporting virus hunting in bats, at the very end, it briefly admitted that Michael Osterholm, a prominent epidemiologist, believes that researchers and politicians should, instead direct their limited resources to halting outbreaks of already known-to-be deadly viruses.

A similar article titled, “Can Virus Hunters Stop the Next Pandemic Before It Happens?” was published on January 25, 2018 by the Smithsonian. Though this article asks the right question, it too mostly promotes the virus hunting approach. Only at the very end, does it acknowledge Robert Tesh, also a leading expert on zoonotic viruses, as having an opposing view.

Referring to the so-called virus hunters, he expressed his opinion that “A lot of the stuff they produce is hype. It’s more PR than science.” Tesh refers to Zika and West Nile viruses, noting that neither is new. They were transported to new areas, then spilled over, events that he doubts could have been predicted. He also notes that many reassortment viruses mutate quickly and that no amount of discovery could prepare for that. Tesh concludes that “Given these variables and how little we really understand them, people who claim they can predict what will happen are fooling themselves and the funding agency.”

Though Osterland, Tesh and others have previously expressed doubts about virus hunter claims, the current paper in Nature is the first to treat such concerns with appropriate respect. I’m delighted to see such progress in countering a now almost universal misperception that, has not only led to huge misallocation of public health funding, but also threatens the future of inappropriately maligned bats.

 

References

Holmes, E.C., A. Rambout, and K.G. Andersen. 2018. Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction. Nature, 558:180-182.

Maxmen, A. 2017. Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses. Nature, 546:340.

Morrison, J. 2018. Can virus hunters stop the next pandemic before it happens? SmithsonMag.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-to-stop-next-animal-borne-pandemic-180967908/.

Tuttle, M.D. 2017. Give bats a break. Issues in Science and Technology 33, (Spring 2017):41-50.

Tuttle, M.D. 2018. Fear of bats and its consequences. J. Bat Research and Conservation, 10(1).  https://doi.org/10.14709/ BarbJ.10.1.2017.09.

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Bats and Chocolate Production

By Merlin Tuttle
6/6/18

While conducting her Ph.D. thesis research, Bea Maas and her team (Maas et al. 2013) collected data that would surprise even her. When insect-eating bats and birds were excluded from cacao trees in Sulawesi, Indonesia, the crop yield fell by 31 percent. And when she compared losses due to night versus daytime exclusion, bats versus birds, she discovered that bats accounted for 22 percent of the prevented losses.

A control site in the same study (poles without netting).

To obtain such data, Bea selected 15 plantations where she enclosed 120 cacao trees in 60 exclosures (like huge, mesh cages) constructed of nylon mesh. There were four exclosure treatments per plantation, one daytime, one nighttime, one day and night, and one always left open as a control.

A bat/bird exclosure in Sarawak, Indonesia, built with bamboo poles and commercial nylon monofilament netting with a mesh size of 2 x 2 cm. These were opened and closed like curtains daily.

When closed, all bat and bird species were excluded, but arthropods were allowed entry, including large spiders, butterflies, and moths. The exclosures were opened and closed like curtains, daily at 5:30 am and at 6:30 pm for 15 continuous months. Using standardized systems, all arthropods were counted and digitally photographed daily and nightly, and cacao damage was documented every two weeks. More than 70,000 fruits were examined, including over 4,000 ripe, harvested fruits.

 

When Bea extrapolated the economic impact of bats saving growers an estimated 520 U.S. dollars per hectare across 1.5 to 1.6 million hectares of cacao, this value translated into savings of 780 to 832 million U.S. dollars annually! It is important to note that studied plantations were in or near natural vegetation. Without this biodiversity balance, such impressive savings likely would not have been possible.

 

She calculated the separate value of bats when quizzed about it after appearance of the original paper in Ecology Letters. Bats accounted for 22 percent, birds 9 percent, of savings (Maas et al. 2018, p 62). The economic extrapolations from these numbers are from her personal communication.

Intermediate roundleaf bats (Hipposideros larvatus) are exceptionally widespread, found in Sarawak and most of Southeast Asia. They roost in caves, rock crevices and buildings, and feed on a wide variety of insects, from moths and beetles to stink bugs and mosquitoes.
Trefoil Horseshoe Bats (Rhinolophus trifoliatus) range throughout most of Southeast Asia, living in understory forests. They roost alone in foliage, including beneath palm and rattan leaves. and hunt by listening and waiting for insects to fly by their feeding perches. Horseshoe bats feed on a wide variety of insects, especially moths, and were among the bats excluded in this study.
The Philippine horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus philippinensis) ranges from Australia through the Philippines and into Southeast Asia. It feeds both in dense vegetation and in open areas, often in rainforests. It is one of several horseshoe bat species likely to have been excluded.
Common Asian Ghost Bats (Megaderma spasma) are found throughout most of Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines. They form small groups, mostly consisting of a male and several females and their young, in caves, hollow trees, road culverts and buildings. Their large ears help detect prey sounds as they move through foliage. Prey consist mostly of large insects but also can include small vertebrates. This is one of many bat species most likely to have been excluded.

 

References

 

Maas, B. 2013. Bats and birds increase crop yield in tropical agroforestry landscapes. Ecology Letters 16:1480-1487.

Maas, B. and T. Tscharntke, A. Tjoa, S. Saleh, N. Edy, A. Anshary and M. Muhammad Basir. 2018. Effects of Ecosystem Services Provided by Birds and Bats in Smallholder Cacao Plantations of Central Sulawesi. Gottingen Univ. Press.

 

 

 

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Thanks to Mongabay for Balanced Nipah Reporting

By Merlin Tuttle
5/31/18

We greatly appreciate Mongabay for its handling of the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, India. Its story, “Nipah infection in Kerala: Don’t blame the bats alone; improve public health,” appeared on May 30, authored by Haritha John and Gopikrishna Warrier. Needless alarm was avoided by balanced reporting. As so often is the case, the rarest threats make the biggest news. Fortunately, in this instance, the news was accurate, so did not cause needless panic.

Fruit-eating bats appear to be the natural reservoir for this virus. However, Nipah is easily avoidable, as noted in the Mongabay article. Human infections originate from drinking unpasteurized palm juice or from contact with pigs who have eaten contaminated fruit.  The reported outbreak did kill 14 people, mostly from person-to-person transmission within a family and their immediate contacts. However, put in perspective, it was hardly grounds for the kind of panic too often created by needlessly scary speculation of potential pandemics killing millions. Thanks to level-headed health officials and media coverage, eradication of ecologically and economically essential bats was avoided.

 

A greater short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx) stealing a sip of sweet palm juice, often collected and consumed by people as a delicious drink. Humans who drink this juice only after pasteurization are safe from infection.

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Bat Flash! Encouragement for Positivity in Cambodia

This powerful article in Southeast Asia Globe, by Claire Baker-Munton, on the value of artificial bat roosts in Southeast Asia deserves much praise. With the help of Merlin’s photos, this article clearly promotes a better understanding of bats and their values. At a time when so many media headlines are attempting to grab readership by speculating potential linkage of bats to scary diseases, positive stories like this are crucial. In reality, as Claire points out, Cambodians have found bats to be highly valued neighbors.

TAKE ACTION!

Choose any or all means of contact to reach out with your praise and encouragement on behalf of bats.

 

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Wildlife and Wind Farms: Conflicts and Solutions Book Review

Wildlife and Wind Farms: Conflicts and Solutions
Book Review by Merlin Tuttle
1/8/18

 

Wildlife and Wind Farms, Conflicts and Solutions, Volume 2, provides a summary of current conflicts and solutions involving the rapid growth of wind farms and their impacts on wildlife. Chapters by leading experts cover topics from turbine siting and mortality monitoring to, statistical evaluations and mitigation.

This is the second of two volumes, both edited by M.R. Perrow. They are thorough and authoritative, an important resource for professionals concerned with wind energy impacts on wildlife. Unfortunately, this is a complex subject, and industry has been slow to adopt many of the remedies reported. Issues for birds and bats differ significantly and typically require different solutions. This review emphasizes those involving bats.

Ridgetop turbines in West Virginia.

Early investigations often failed to account for searcher detectability or scavenger removal rates when calculating wildlife fatalities at wind farms. Such problems were exacerbated by long intervals between searches, during which most corpses were removed by scavengers or arthropods. Small corpses can virtually disappear to human view in even a few inches of vegetation, and most of a night’s kill can be removed by scavengers within hours, depending on local circumstances. Trained dogs have performed far better than humans in searching for kills, but few are used. Fatality detection is complicated and often debated.

 

The impact of scavenger removal is difficult to accurately document. Depending on local scavenger faunas, removal rates can vary greatly. Scavengers may also take time to discover a new food source, causing removal rates to change from week to week or year to year.

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Major Addresses Reach Leadership Audiences from Brazil to Chile

By Paula Tuttle
12/3/17

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.

Merlin Tuttle presenting keynote address for joint meeting of Brazil’s Bat and Mammal Societies in Pirenopolis.

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.

Merlin Tuttle speaking to virologists and epidemiologists at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A very friendly and helpful discussion followed.

 

Merlin providing the inaugural address for the 2017 joint meeting of the Biology and Ecology Societies of Chile, held in Puerto Varas, Patagonia.

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Bat Flash! Respond to Misleading Attempt to Encourage Fear of Bats 12/1/17

By Merlin Tuttle
12/1/17

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.

Villagers harvesting bat guano from Rakang Cave in Thailand. For as long as anyone can remember no unusual illness has occured, one of many similar contradictions that virologists forecasting world pandemics from bats cannot explain.

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!

TAKE ACTION!

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.

 

Merlin Tuttle interviewing 96-year-old Siri Tanomsri near Rakang Cave in Thailand. Siri and his wife spent nearly their whole adult lives extracting bat guano to sell for fertilizer and remained in excellent health when last interviewed by Merlin in 2013. Siri and his family, along with a dozen other families, reported no ill effects from their close association with a million bats of half a dozen insect, fruit, and nectar-eating species.

 

 

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Education is Key to Flying Fox Survival

Merlin Tuttle
10/25/17

In response to the Mongabay article of August 29 titled, “Bats and viruses: Beating back a bad reputation,” Dr. Sheema Abdul Aziz, commented as follows on September 5:

Sheema in a durian tree.

“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 explaining flying fox pollination to Mak Long, owner of the durian orcharad where her Ph.D. rhesis research was conducted. MTBC photos are playing a vital role in educating islanders to a better appreciation of flying foxes.
Sheema using a light microscope to look for pollen grains in flying fox droppings.

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 flowersas 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.

Large flying foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) have wingspans of nearly six feet, the largest of any bat. They are widespread in Southeast Asia, Borneo and the Philippines, but are in alarming decline due to over-harvesting for human food, and are often needlessly killed when entering orchards.

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.”

An island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus), the focus of Dr. Azizes’ primary research.

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!

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“Bat Girl” Alexis Hitting It Big for Bats

10/25/17

Alexis Valentine won the 2nd Place award at the 14th Annual Jr. Foresters Science/Research Competition in Moscow, Russia.

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.

Ian Agranat, Alexis Valentine and Merlin Tuttle at the Wildlife Acoustics display.

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.

 

Keep it up, BatGirl, we’re proud of you!

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Thanks to Atlantic Monthly

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.

We invite everyone to share praise and encouragement via email or leaving a comment on the article page.

 

Photo caption: Tourists observing the emergence of 1.5 million Brazilian free-tailed bats from crevices beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas.

 

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