Bat Flash! Unveiling the Real World of Bats in a Time of Misinformation

9/15/2020

By Danielle Cordani

The avalanche of speculative reports associating bats with COVID-19 seems never ending. However, at a time of scary misinformation, bat researchers and conservationists worldwide are discovering new reasons to appreciate bats, some decades in the making.

In Central America, researchers from the Free University of Berlin analyzed communication between bat mothers and their pups. Just like humans talking to a baby, adult greater sac-winged bats (Saccopteryx bilineata) alter the “color” and pitch of their pup-directed vocalizations. Not surprising, this breakthrough indicates parent-offspring communication in bats is more complex than previously assumed. Further investigation of social feedback during vocal development in young bats may reveal even more shared language features between bats and humans.

A greater sac-winged bat (Saccopteryx bilineata) in Panama.

Across the Atlantic, a team of scientists in Africa used novel methods to describe more accurately the differences among bats. It turns out—as is common when studying bats—there is more than meets the eye. Comparison of the penis bones, echolocation calls, and genes of African vesper bats revealed three new species and two new genera. The discovery could mean new identification techniques for the often-indistinguishable group and clearer protections for unique bats and their ecosystems.

A banana pipistrelle (Afronycteris nana), showing its tiny size and one of its adhesive pads used for clinging to the inside of unfurling leaves.
Banana pipistrelles roosting in an unfurling banana leaf in Kenya.
Perhaps the most publicized bat discovery of 2020 was conducted by a group of scientists from Israel. Their groundbreaking study presents never-before-seen evidence of “cognitive mapping” in non-human animals. Using revolutionary tracking technology, Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) proved extremely sophisticated and efficient at navigation. Bats relied on goal-directed memory maps rather than landmark cues or sense of smell, seldom foraging at random.

Despite great scientific advances, improved communication is needed to successfully interpret and share bat values with others. Douglas MacFarlane and Ricardo Rocha have taken this into account. By applying conversation psychology, they provide communication guidelines that can help neutralize negative associations between bats and disease. Even scientists with good intentions may inadvertently undermine their message by failing to debunk misinformation.

Falsehoods and fear are easily created through misunderstandings. For example, in Iran and the Mediterranean, myths of mercury-containing “bat nests” began circulating over social media, inciting needless environmental destruction. In response, Iranian researcher, Dr. Hossein Zohoori, teamed up to create Mercury Mirage, a powerful documentary that discredited the untruths with stunning visual evidence.

We congratulate all who are persevering in unveiling the real world of bats in times when investigation, attention and resources have been so severely misdirected toward disease speculation. Discoveries of bat sophistication and values, and effective communication, have never been more important.

An Egyptian fruit bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus) pollinating a baobab flower in Kenya.

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We invite you to choose any or all means of sharing your THANKS and ENCOURAGEMENT for this positive press. We’re always especially excited to share praise-worthy Bat Flashes.

Our combined voices can make a difference. We invite you to briefly share your praise in your own words with producers and editors. They do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple. Just let them know you like or dislike an article. It’s numbers that count and bats need all of you! Tell a friend about bat values and how they can help. Thank you for your vigilant support of bats, their conservation, and MTBC.

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Bat Flash! Premature Speculation Revives Scary Headlines

8/13/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

A study published July 28th in Nature Microbiology titled, “Evolutionary origins of the SARS-CoV-2 lineage responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic,” implies a direct bat origin at a time when analyses remain woefully incomplete. Nevertheless, news media continue to sensationalize inconclusive speculation in a manner that needlessly demonizes bats and circumvents the scientific process:

BBC NEWS“COVID-19: Infectious coronaviruses circulating in bats for decades”

Popular Science—“The virus that causes COVID-19 has been silently brewing in bats for decades”

The Philadelphia Inquirer—“The next coronavirus may already be circulating in bats, study suggests”

Live Science—”Ancestors of coronavirus have been hiding out in bats for decades, ready to infect humans.”

Millions of tourists have safely observed bats close up in Austin, Texas without harm. Bat-watchers add millions of dollars to Austin's economy each summer.

None of these articles mentions either the exceptional value of bats or how rare it is to contract any disease from a bat. Readers need rational advice, not more cause for panic!

Failure to find an intermediate ancestor for SARS-CoV-2 is not a basis for concluding that bat-to-human transmission has occurred. There is a massive under-sampling of other species. It is even possible that the virus now causing COVID-19 evolved its deadly characteristics after arrival in humans. Much more sampling of possible hosts will be required before we can conclude where it came from.

The implied contention that bats are uniquely dangerous hosts of deadly coronaviruses is premature and inconsistent with current evidence. There is evidence of a horseshoe bat role in the early evolution of a SARS-like coronavirus. Nevertheless, Wenzel agrees, “common knowledge regarding SARS viruses is apparently not well supported.” There is a critical need to survey coronaviruses, far beyond bats. Finding the true source of COVID-19 transmission to humans is key to future prevention.

No patient zero has been found, leaving the route of transmission to humans a mystery. It is time to halt media headlines that misrepresent facts, risking the survival of already threatened bats, and diminishing confidence in science.

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Bat Flash! Misleading Article Harms Bats and Public Health

7/17/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

A disappointing number of authors and publishers are spreading the false narrative that bats are exceptionally high-risk sources of deadly viruses. The July 12 edition of The Washington Post contained an article titled, “Why do bats have so many viruses?” The author, Rachel Ehrenberg, was apparently unaware of the most recent analysis of viral risks.

We urge Rachel and other Washington Post journalists to review Mollentze and Streiker’s April 28, 2020 comprehensive analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Their paper titled, “Viral zoonotic risk is homogeneous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts” concluded that bats are no more likely than other animals to host disease.

Virus hunters have focused search efforts disproportionately on bats, apparently because bats are exceptionally easy to sample in large numbers and have few defenders. Referring to the Covid-19 outbreak, Zhang and Holmes concluded that surveillance of coronaviruses in animals other than bats is critical to protecting against future outbreaks.

Sensational speculation, exaggerating bat association with scary viruses, has led to a serious bias that impedes our understanding of viral pandemics and creates a perfect storm of media publicity. This feeds into our broader academic crisis—the misallocation of large grants for splashy, attention-getting “research” that promotes career advancement over high-quality, reproducible scientific investigation. Such bias threatens to misdirect limited public health resources and halt, or even reverse, decades of conservation progress.

It’s time publishers, authors, researchers, and decision-makers let go of the premise that bats are uniquely dangerous sources of disease and end biased sampling and unsupported speculation. Instead, we need to identify true sources of human infection and insist on accurate reporting that leads to actual prevention.

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