Bat Flash! Help Last Week Tonight Put Bats in Perspective

The Last Week Tonight with John Oliver February 15th episode shared misguided speculations about bats. Here is Merlin’s public letter to John Oliver. We don’t have his email address, so we’re counting on you to help get his attention. No shade, John, we understand the topic is muddy. We simply want the opportunity to set the record straight!

Contact information and action steps are listed below.

Dear John,

Given your reputation for integrity and fearless candor, several of your loyal followers have asked me to help you better understand disease risks from bats. Why me? Because, as one of the world’s most experienced bat researchers, I’ve handled hundreds of species worldwide for 60 years, often surrounded by millions in caves. I’ve also led successful conservation efforts internationally for more than 40 years. My experience and photographs are used worldwide, including in National Geographic articles, to share the truth about bats through my organization, Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation. Here’s a clip from my appearance on David Letterman decades ago; I have been leading efforts to educate humans about bats my entire career.

I, and hundreds of others who study bats, have spent whole careers working with them unprotected against any of the so-called emerging diseases about which we’re now warned. And we’re still healthy. We’re also aware that millions of people visit and work in caves annually without causing disease outbreaks.

Thus, we question the sanity of warnings of extreme risks to visitors of tour caves where a bat could purportedly cause a deadly pandemic by defecating on them. There is no proof that such an event has ever occurred. And warning of the possibility is like warning of death from a falling spacecraft, possible but extremely unlikely.

I appreciate your mention of the far greater risks from industrial meat production and your comments on the essential contributions of bats to a healthy planet, but this is not enough to cultivate understanding and put risks in perspective. For the record, unlike rodents who are overpopulating due to the loss of predators, bats are extraordinarily vulnerable to extinction and already in alarming decline.

Exaggerated fear is the greatest cause of human intolerance and killing of bats. Unfortunately, sensational speculation, linking them to scary diseases, sells headline media stories and large grants. Virus hunting, typically linked to bats, has been shown to be an ineffective means of pandemic prevention. However, because bats are the easiest mammals to sample, and have few defenders, they have become tempting victims. Your guest failed to mention that, for anyone who simply doesn’t handle bats, the risk of contracting any disease from one is minuscule. In fact, millions of bats share cities with people from America to Africa and Australia without causing disease outbreaks. As our human population continues to expand, we inescapably must learn to live in harmony with nature.

Although well-intended, the following documented points are too often distorted or ignored in sensational media coverage. I’d be more than happy to assist you and your staff in balancing the story.

  • Bats harbor no more viruses than other animals 1.
  • Claims of disease from bats are often based on poorly supported speculation 2.
  • Claims of 96% genomic similarity between viruses are meaningless and misleading 3,4.
  • Promises that can’t be kept are misdirecting billions of dollars to virus hunting that is counterproductively biased toward bats and better spent on other health priorities 5,6, 7.
  • Bats have an undeniable history of living with humans without causing disease outbreaks 8.
  • There is a long history of lucrative, but exceptionally harmful, exploitation of disease exaggerations against bats 9.
  • Fear of bats leads to intolerance and killing 9,10.
  • Asking people to conserve bats because they are beneficial, while failing to counter exaggerated fear, is unlikely to improve conservation success 10.
  • Ebola was first speculated to come from fruit bats, then insectivorous bats, but more recently it was admitted that no source has been found despite extensive efforts 11, 12.
  • It cannot be stated strongly enough that Ebola, SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2 have not been isolated from a bat despite frequent attempts.

Also, here’s a recent video sponsored by the U.S. National Park Service about putting bat fears in perspective. Thank you for your time, I hope to hear from you.

Kindly, 

Merlin

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. We encourage you to invite John to discuss the truth about bats with Merlin and politely share your opinion in your own words via social media. You may find our resources, Give Bats a Break and Good Intentions Can Still Leave a Bad Taste, additionally helpful in composing your personal reply and discussing these topics with others.

It’s numbers that count and bats need all of you! Tell a friend about bat values and how they can help.

Millions of visitors have safely viewed spectacular emergences of 1.5 million bats in Austin, Texas.

References

  1. Mollentze, N. & Streicker, D. G. Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2020) doi:10.1073/pnas.1919176117.
  2. Wenzel, J. Origins of SARS‐CoV‐1 and SARS‐CoV‐2 are often poorly explored in leading publications. Cladistics cla.12425 (2020) doi:10.1111/cla.12425.
  3. Mallapaty, S. Coronaviruses Closely Related to the Pandemic Discovered in Japan and Cambodia. Nature 588, 15–16 (2020).
  4. Mikkelsen, T. S. et al. Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome. Nature 437, 69–87 (2005).
  5. Holmes, E. C., Rambaut, A. & Andersen, K. G. Pandemics: Spend on surveillance, not prediction. Nature 558, 180–182 (2018).
  6. Zhang, Y.-Z. & Holmes, E. C. A Genomic Perspective on the Origin and Emergence of SARS-CoV-2. Cell (2020) doi:10.1016/j.cell.2020.03.035.
  7. Tuttle, M.D. A Viral Witch Hunt. Issues in Science and Technology. (2020) https://issues.org/a-viral-witch-hunt-bats/.
  8. Taylor, M. Bats: An Illustrated Guide to All Species. (Smithsonian Books, 2018).
  9. Tuttle, M. D. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Journal of Bat Research & Conservation 10, (2017).
  10. Lu, M. et al. Does public fear that bats spread COVID-19 jeopardize bat conservation? Biological Conservation 108952 (2021) doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.108952.
  11. Marí Saéz, A. et al. Investigating the zoonotic origin of the West African Ebola epidemic. EMBO Molecular Medicine 7, 17–23. (2015) doi:10.15252/emmm.201404792
  12. Kock, R.A. et al. Searching for the source of Ebola: the elusive factors driving its spillover into humans during the West African outbreak of 2013-2016. Revue Scientifique et Technique (2019) doi:10.20506/rst.issue.38.1.2937.

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USA Today Bat Flash Follow-up

Many thanks to all who responded to last week’s Bat Flash. We were copied on emails and are delighted to see your politely and positively framed responses. Many of you received identical replies from the authors, as shown below.

Misunderstandings are common and often shared by well intended writers. Unfortunately speculation gets shared as fact, so much so that it becomes difficult to see the truth.

 

MTBC’s objective is to encourage the authors, editors and decision makers to refocus attention to balanced reporting of scientifically sound facts. We offer our resources and, with the help of our members, these responses have often led to collaborations, op-eds or follow up publications that put the truth in perspective. 

 

Merlin responded on February 1, 2021 to both USA Today authors, Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise, as follows:

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Bat Flash! CNN Misses the Mark

Response to CNN Program “Bats—The Mystery Behind COVID-19″

6/16/2020
By Merlin Tuttle

I applaud Anderson Cooper for his attempt to improve public perceptions of bats. His program included numerous reasons why we should appreciate and protect bats. Nevertheless, producers failed to alleviate needless fear by omission of key facts and addition of misleading narratives. Such approaches unfortunately solidify needless fear and can’t be countered by simply sharing bat values. For bats to be tolerated, fear must be eliminated.

Many researchers were reported to “believe” that COVID-19 came from bats. Bats were claimed to be reservoirs for the standard litany of deadliest diseases, including Ebola, though the source of Ebola and COVID-19 remains a mystery. Bats were clearly stated to harbor more zoonotic viruses than other animals, ignoring recent research refuting such claims. Furthermore, scientists shown studying bats wore sealed suits and full-face respirator protection, sending a strong visual message of danger.

A wonderful array of positive things were said about bats, and their essential ecosystem and economic roles were emphasized. However, without putting disease risks in perspective, advising viewers to respect bats while also warning against living near them is high-risk for negative consequences.  

Human encroachment into bat habitats was blamed for pandemic disease threats. However, it was not explained how expanding human populations could reduce pandemic risks simply by ending logging or invasion of new bat habitats. Nor was it explained how bats, restricted to their protected areas apart from where we live and grow crops, could possibly continue to shield us from mosquitoes in our yards or pests that attack our crops. 

Missing elements were conspicuous by their absence. There was no mention of the fact that millions of bats share cities with humans in America, Africa, Asia, and Australia without associated disease outbreaks. Nor was there mention of how easily disease transmission from bats can be avoided—in most of the world by simply not handling or eating bats. Even more troubling is the fact that program producers were well aware of these omitted facts.

On May 7 and 8, production staff conducted nearly two hours of phone interviews with me and Teresa Nichta and received abundant documentation from us. We even offered outstanding video footage showing the popularity of bat-watching tourism in Austin, Texas and planned to schedule filming at various sites in Texas upon their request. They seemed quite excited about our help, promising to get back to us in a few days with final plans. Then, they simply disappeared. We can’t avoid wondering who nixed the production staff’s enthusiasm for sharing such a key demonstration of bats making safe and invaluable neighbors. I suspect that Anderson Cooper will be surprised if ever he learns of this.

The bottom line — Frightened humans seldom tolerate and often kill bats. Programs that promote fear, regardless of good intentions, threaten bats and their essential services as valued neighbors.  

Please remember, there is no credible science documenting that bats are responsible for the transmission of COVID-19, Ebola, SARS, or MERS, to humans. Anyone implying such transmission is speculating. Be vigilant in your media consumption and sharing! 

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Exploring Ecuador’s Los Cedros Reserve

4/15/2020
By Teresa Nichta

This rainy February, we visited Los Cedros Biological Reserve in Ecuador.

Roo Vandegrift, and crew, are filming Marrow of the Mountain; a documentary about the mega-mining now in Ecuador. “In 2017, the amount of land available for mining expanded by hundreds of percent, leaving huge swaths of Ecuador’s most sensitive and biodiverse habitats at the mercy of international mining interests. These concessions appeared suddenly and were sold without public knowledge or consent, especially affecting the mineral-rich and endangered Choco Rainforest.” Roo invited MTBC to conduct a bat survey, which could support litigation to stop the illegal gold mining and help protect the reserve’s unique flora and fauna. The data is to track diversity and endemism at Los Cedros, and analyses are submitted to conservation groups and government agencies, like Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the Ecuadorian state Institute for Biodiversity (part of the Ministry of Environment).

Los Cedros Biological Reserve consists of 17,000 acres of premontane wet tropical forest and cloud forest. Of this, 2,650 acres is formerly colonized land, while the remainder is primary forest. The reserve is a southern buffer zone for the 450,000-acre Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, and both are part of the Choco Phytogeographical Zone. The Choco region is one of the most biologically diverse and endemic habitats on Earth.

Part of its charm is the journey to get there. Monica and I left our Quito AirBnB at 5 am to board a 3-hour long bus ride to Chontal, where we met Marc Dragiewicz of Eyes of the World Films. It was then just a short 30-minute truck ride to the trailhead. 

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49th NASBR in Kalamazoo, Michigan

The 49th Annual North American Symposium on Bat Research was held in Kalamazoo, Michigan on October 23-26, 2019. It was hosted by Amy Russell and Maarten Vonhofm amidst a quintessential Midwestern autumn. There’s no better place to keep up with the latest bat research technologies and discoveries or for graduate students to explore career options. Many of the researchers attend every year, developing lasting friendships and invaluable networking opportunities. Not surprisingly, this is Merlin’s favorite group. He hasn’t missed a meeting in 49 years. This year, Merlin joined Brock and Sherri Fenton and Price Sewell in presenting an enthusiastically received pre-conference workshop on bat photography.

Our hospitable hosts, Amy Russell and Maarten Vonhofm.

Merlin especially enjoys opportunities to encourage students in conservation-related careers and takes great pride in the achievements of those he has helped. Four joined Merlin for the organization’s annual “Lunch with a Mentor” program to discuss career path choices, conservation interests, and of course, to hear a few of Merlin’s wild adventure stories.  They also got a perspective from Teresa who sat in on the meeting. (Check out Advice for Young People Interested in Science and Conservation) (more…)

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A Model Example of Bat Recovery Potential

By Merlin Tuttle
9/25/19

Long Cave, in Kentucky, like many others, has a long history of human occupation with little record of prior use by bats. It was mined for saltpeter, a key ingredient of gun powder, during the war of 1812 and was subject to commercial tourism, probably beginning at about the turn of the century, ending by the 1930s.

Rick Toomey and Merlin Tuttle waiting for group to enter bat-friendly gate at Long Cave.

Huge passages trapped cold air and remained cool year-round, offering major opportunities for bat hibernation. Roost stains from past bat use were widespread, and the cave clearly had potential to shelter millions. As recently as 1947 some 50,000 bats, presumed to be largely the now endangered Indiana myotis (Myotis sodalis), continued to return in winter. Nevertheless, entrance barriers built to exclude non-paying tourists, increasingly restricted air flow, eventually culminating in a concrete wall and a nearly solid door.

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Renowned Photographer Aids Australia’s Flying Foxes

7/22/19
By Merlin Tuttle

 

Two grey-headed flying foxes, Pteropus poliocephalus, hang form a tree branch during a rain shower.

Doug Gimesy ranks among the very best when it comes to wildlife photographers. His numerous awards include winning the Wildscreen Panda Photo Story Award in 2018 and selection as the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year in 2019. But most importantly he is changing the way the world thinks about nature, having a heart for Australia’s much maligned flying foxes. He explains, “My hope is that the images and information I share will inspire people to stop, think, and treat the world a little more kindly.”

Doug is persuasively teaching the world about Australia’s flying foxes, from his story, “Night Gardeners” in the BBC Wildlife Magazine to “Urban battler” in Australian Geographic. View more of his flying fox photos on his site. (more…)

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WNS: Can a Cure Be Effective?

7/12/2019
By Merin Tuttle

 

Amid media announcements that the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats has spread to California, and growing public concern, The Wildlife Society announced the most recent attempt to find a cure. On July 9, an article titled “Bacteria treatment helps bats survive white-nose syndrome,” suggested progress toward a cure. However, there is no evidence that human intervention can slow the spread or cure the disease. As I’ve reported, the best available studies from the Northeast indicate that population recovery at key sites is exceeding expectations, and that a cure is unnecessary, impractical to implement, and risks unintended negative consequences. 

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A School Where Bats Are Welcome

7/11/19
By Merlin Tuttle

 

Ariel Miller documenting installation of her school’s new bat houses.

Skybridge Academy is doing something new! While many school administrators might panic at the sight of a bat in the yard, Ariel Miller, founder of the school in Dripping Springs, Texas, recently invited us to install two bat houses in her schoolyard. She hopes to attract hundreds of Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) and use them as teaching aids across Skybridge’s custom-made curriculum.

 

To put it mildly, the school is innovative! The yard includes a pair of pigs, a beehive, a vegetable garden, and now deluxe housing for bats. Students choose their own subjects and learn practical skills, completely omitting standardized testing. Skybridge alumni have an outstanding track record of achievement regardless of whether they opt to pursue higher education or another career path. (more…)

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Bats: An Illustrated Guide to All Species Gains Top Reviews and Sales

7/1/19
By Merlin Tuttle

The American version of BATS: An Illustrated Guide to All Species, published by the Smithsonian Institution, sold its first print run of over 5,000 copies in just three months. It also received high accolades from the science journal Nature and a prestigious Star Award from the Library Journal. The Library Journal verdict? “Far beyond the practical value of a guidebook, this is an important update to bat literature and one to savor, containing a wonder on nearly every page and proving that bats are indeed ‘intelligent, curious, comical, even essential animals.'”

A painted bat (Kerivoula picta) in Thailand.

 

The science journal Nature reported, “This guide by writer Marianne Taylor and bat conservationist Merlin Tuttle shines a light on the order Chiroptera, from the wee Kitti’s hog-nosed bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai, a candidate for world’s smallest mammal) to the ‘megabats’ of the Pteropodidae family. Meshing deft scientific text with Tuttle’s sumptuous images, it’s a superb introduction to the baroque morphologies and flying prowess of these beguiling beasts.”

A greater mouse-eared bat (Myotis myotis) catching a katydid in Bulgaria.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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