Bat Flash! One of World’s Greatest Wildlife Wonders Under Immediate Threat

Take Action by 5:00 PM (CDT), JUNE 15!

By Merlin Tuttle
6/11/2021

The survival of ten million straw-colored fruit bats may hinge on your voice. They come from across equatorial Africa to rear their young in Zambia’s Kasanka National Park, which serves as critical roosting habitat each October and November. Now both the park, and adjacent forest where bats feed, are threatened by a proposal for expansion of industrial agriculture.

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Comments on World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Report

The World Health Organization’s recent report on COVID-19 speculates a bat origin. However, its findings are seriously flawed and questioned by the Biden administration according to the Wall Street Journal. Former CDC Director, Robert Redfield, in his CNN interview, still believes it escaped from a lab in China. The origin clearly remains unresolved.

A review of scientific literature reveals that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has not been found in bats, and there are no reports of transmission from a bat to a human.

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Ebola Discovery That May Help Bats

3/16/21
By Merlin D. Tuttle

Early evidence pointed to great apes1 and humans2 as possible sources of Ebola, but they were assumed to be too susceptible to serve as reservoirs. Bats were widely speculated to be the source, though the preponderance of evidence pointed elsewhere3.

By the time of the current outbreak in Guinea, it had long been assumed that bats were to blame for Ebola transmission to humans. Nevertheless, it has now been traced to a symptomless human carrier4.

This raises the possibility that other outbreaks, assumed to have come from bats, instead came from humans or other primates5.

Regrettably, bats have not been aided by public education campaigns now recommended to prevent human stigmatization4. For nearly a decade, bats have been blamed in news articles worldwide as exceptionally dangerous sources of scary diseases, based largely on premature Ebola speculation. The harm done will be long-lasting and difficult to counter, but we may now have an opportunity to begin restoring the tarnished reputation of bats.

Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) at their roost in Zambia. This species was the first one to be erroneously blamed for Ebola.
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Bat Flash! Help John Oliver 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. You can still help!

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USA Today Bat Flash Follow-up

Many thanks to all who responded to last week’s Bat FlashWe were copied on emails and are delighted to see your politely and positively framed responses. 

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. 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.

Many of you received identical replies from the authors, as shown below. Merlin responded on February 1, 2021 to both USA Today authors, Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise, as follows:

Dear Karen and Elizabeth,

I’m replying to your responses to friends and colleagues who are deeply concerned about how Covid speculation is harming bats.

I appreciate your good intentions and understand how easy it is to be misled on the subject of bats and disease. Unlike those who promote exaggerated fear of bats, I have nothing to gain financially from sharing the truth. For decades, scaring people with misrepresented disease claims has proven extraordinarily lucrative as well as harmful to bat conservation. When I began my career in bat research, more than 60 years ago, nearly everyone in America “knew” that most bats were rabid and would attack people based on unfounded claims from public health officials. Mass eradication was common. When DDT use was made illegal, our CDC received a special exemption to distribute it for killing bats though leading scientists showed this to be highly counterproductive. We documented this in peer reviewed publications, finally convincing the EPA to ban all poisoning of bats.

But scaring people about bats continues to be so easy and lucrative as to apparently be irresistible for many in public health fields. A large part of the problem is that colonial bats are the easiest of all mammals to sample quickly in large numbers, and many people already fear them simply because we fear most what we understand least. Since few people understand bats, viruses, or genetic relationships, speculating about them in combination is especially powerful in generating sensational media headlines that sell readership and unprecedentedly large grants.

In truth, there is no credible evidence that bats harbor more diseases than other animals. However, by searching in far more bats than other animals, self-fulfilling prophecies are achieved, leading to misdirected investment in public health priorities. In fact, the odds of contracting any disease from a bat are immeasurably close to zero for anyone who simply doesn’t attempt to handle them. That truth is conveniently omitted by those who profit from public fear. I don’t deny that bats, like all animals, harbor viruses, but put in perspective, humans harbor and spread more scary diseases than bats or any other animal.

Like veterinarians, I personally am vaccinated against rabies to protect against defensive bites from the many unfamiliar animals I handle. However, I’ve never been protected against any of the so-called emerging diseases speculated to be of bat origin. And I remain healthy despite having handled hundreds of species worldwide and often been surrounded by millions at a time while working in caves.

If you would like to help both people and bats by putting risks in perspective, I would be delighted to assist you.

Best wishes,

Merlin

Merlin received the response pictured below, like many of you did, and responded on February 6, 2021, as follows:

Dear Elizabeth,

There is evidence of a horseshoe bat role in the early evolution of a SARS-like coronavirus. Because bats are an ancient group of mammals that comprise a fifth of all species, it is not surprising to find ancestral strains of modern viruses in them. Nevertheless, the two viruses (RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2) diverged 40-70years ago and are no more similar than we are to chimpanzees. The fact remains, the origin of COVID-19 is still a mystery, and failure to find an intermediate ancestor for SARS-CoV-2 is not a basis for concluding that bat-to-human transmission has occurred. Many alternative animal sources simply remain uninvestigated, and leading virologists have emphasized the need for a broader search beyond bats. Finding the true source of COVID-19 transmission to humans, not distant viral relatives, is key to future prevention.

It is important to understand how zoonotic diseases are transmitted to humans. But effective protection demands unbiased investigation. The disproportionate focus on bats is an unfortunate waste of limited resources that threatens to reverse decades of bat conservation. 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.

There is a long history of public health exaggeration focused on bats, and its harm to bats is undeniable. People who fear animals seldom tolerate and often kill them regardless of warnings that they are beneficial and shouldn’t be killed. I have personally documented cases in which hundreds of thousands of bats have been burned in their caves, or trapped and left to starve when their caves were sealed by needlessly fearful humans. The attached photo shows just a few of the 250,000 trapped in a single location I visited. There are also well-documented incidents in several countries due to sensational media speculation of a bat origin for COVID-19. 

Those who profit from human fear of bats rarely, if ever, mention that the odds of contracting any disease from a bat are extremely remote for people who simply don’t handle them. Without ending fear, good intentions can do more harm than good.

I urge an end to media speculation that misrepresents facts, threatening the survival of bats and diminishing confidence in science.

Best wishes,

Merlin

Picture1
This is the photo Merlin attached to his email, mentioned above. It shows the remains of just a few of the 250,000 bats trapped in a single location, where they were sealed inside their roosting tunnel by fearful humans.
Merlin then received the response pictured below, like many of you did, on February 10, 2021:

Because we’ve already provided clear documentation of expert disagreement to the author’s statements we did not respond to this email. 

It seems that Karen and Elizabeth, while well-intended, are hopelessly committed and uninterested in hearing facts that don’t align with their reporting. Yes, it’s a fact bats harbor viruses, just like humans and every other animal on the planet, but they don’t harbor more than other species.

We hope for better luck next time. Some authors and editors are willing to consider opposing science, and by sharing this exchange we can encourage polite discussion and shed light on the need for balanced reporting, especially when it comes to bats. Thanks again for speaking up for bats!

If you haven’t shared your opinion with USA Today yet, it’s never too late to use your voice on behalf of bats. Bats need friends now more than ever. We hope our resources can help you be the best bat ambassador you can be, so keep sharing the truth about bats!

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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.

 

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.

The bat population plummeted, leaving only roost stains as evidence of extraordinary past use. By the time that Mammoth Cave National Park was established in 1941, few bats could be found in the park’s caves, and those that remained weren’t yet recognized as either important or endangered.

By the early 1990s, as characteristic bat roost stains began to be recognized, the huge historic importance of several of the park’s caves began to be suspected. Cave Resource Management Specialist and Research Coordinator, Rick Olson, invited me and several colleagues to lead an investigation. We quickly found unmistakable evidence, of past use by at least 9-13 million bats, perhaps more than twice that many, mostly endangered gray (Myotis grisescens) and Indiana myotis.

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