Bat Flash! Smithsonian Promotes Misleading Virus Hunter Claims

By Merlin Tuttle
8/3/18

 

The July 11, 2018 edition of Smithsonian.com contains another highly misleading story on virus hunters protecting us from pandemics. The story by Katherine J. Wu is titled, “A Never-Before-Seen-Virus Has Been Detected in Myanmar’s Bats.” Wu claims that to prevent the next Pandemic, we need to pinpoint it at the source. She then reports that “researchers in Myanmar have hit pay dirt with a never-before-seen virus that infects wrinkle-lipped bats—a virus in the same family as the ones that cause SARS and MERS.”

Merlin with a young Black flying fox (Pteropus alecto).

After further extolling the virtues of virus hunting, she quotes Chelsea Wood, reportedly a conservation ecologist, as saying that, “Tropical rainforests [in particular] are just cesspools of viral diversity—the highest viral diversity on the planet.” The headline and rhetoric in this article sound more like grocery store tabloid writing than something one would expect from America’s leading institution of science.

This story is a complete contradiction of a paper by epidemiologists, Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Andersen, titled “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction” which appeared in the Journal Nature on June 7, 2018. [1] Referring to virus hunting, 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.” They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention. They conclude that such approaches are an extremely costly waste of limited public health funds and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises.”

New viruses can be found wherever we look. Many are innocuous or even beneficial, [2]  including some that are closely related to deadly ones. [4] The number of viruses found in bats is not necessarily indicative of risk. [5] Nevertheless, promoters of virus hunting make low risks seem imminent and extreme. And since few people understand bats or viruses, the combination is ideal for manipulation used to justify outrageously large misappropriation of funds. [1]

Historically, bats have an outstanding track record. They rarely transmit disease to humans, even where millions closely associate with people in cities. [3] Yet virus hunters are creating a self-perpetuating cycle of fear that threatens their future. That people seldom protect, and often kill animals they fear, especially in the case of bats, is historically well documented.

The Smithsonian.com story follows a familiar virus hunter pattern of promotion. It begins with a scary, headline-grabbing title, followed by speculation of potentially great danger to be prevented, and appears to be confirmed by reported-to-be-independent colleagues. At the end, they add an apparent disclaimer. This one is typical, stating that viral discovery studies can lead to demonizing animals, noting that, “Just because they carry nasty diseases doesn’t mean we should kill these species.”

It’s time to end costly virus hunts that squander public health resources and needlessly create fear of already declining, but ecologically essential bats. As our nation’s highest institution of science, when the Smithsonian publishes misinformation it is particularly damaging.

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to the staff at Smithsonian.com and politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate speculation that creates 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!

 

This series of photos show me radio-tracking a bat to its roost in a giant, hollow tree in the Smithsonian’s Barro Colorado Island rainforest, than squeezing inside to photograph the colony. If rainforests, and the bats that live there were truly “cesspools of dangerous viruses,” I should have died a horrible death long ago!

Little big-eared bat (Micronycteris megalotis) and Seba’s short-tailed fruit bat (Carollia perspicillata) roosting in the hollow tree.

 

 

References

[1] E. Holmes, A. Rambout and K. Andersen, “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction,” Nature, no. 558, pp. 180-182, 2018.
[2] J. Enriquez and S. Gullans , ““Viruses, the Roadrunners of Evolution”,” in Evolving Ourselves, New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2015, pp. 99-103.
[3] M. Tuttle, “Fear of Bats and its Consequences,” Journal of Bat Research and Conservation, vol. 10, no. 1, 2017.
[4] M. Miranda and N. Miranda, “Reston ebolavirus in humans and animals in the Philippines: A review.,” Journal of Infectous Diseases, vol. 204, no. 3, pp. S757-S760, 2011.
[5] K. Kupferschmidt, “Bats may be carrying the next SARS pandemic,” Science, 2013.

 

Read More

Bat Flash! Respond to Reuters News Release Blaming Bats for New Ebola Outbreak

By Merlin Tuttle
5/15/18

 

I share Benoit Nyemba and Fiston Mahamba’s concern regarding a potential resurgence of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as Reuters News reported on May 8. Nevertheless, continuing to blame bats as the source is likely to reverse conservation progress essential to  ecosystem health (Lopez-Baucells et al. 2018) and delay successful Ebola prevention. Understanding the true source is essential.

A male straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum). This is the species that was first erroneously blamed for infecting the two-year-old toddler identified as the index case that triggered the 2013-2014 Ebola outbreak. In the end no one could explain how a bat that never enters buildings and has a three-foot wingspan could have contacted a toddler without anyone knowing about it!

Bats can indeed transmit deadly diseases like rabies and Nipah to humans, though transmission is exceedingly rare and easily avoided. In the case of Ebola, bats have been too easily assumed guilty. A wide variety have been tested at outbreak locations. But, “Ebolavirus has yet to be isolated from bats, and no direct evidence links bats to Ebolavirus infection in humans.” (Spengler et al. 2016) Virologists still know “nothing about where it comes from and how it causes outbreaks.” (Kupferschmidt 2017).

(more…)

Read More

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.

 

Read More

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.

(more…)

Read More

Bat Flash! Praise to Mongabay for Timely Defense of Bats

By Merlin Tuttle
9/5/17

This summer saw the worst avalanche of grossly exaggerated disease speculation ever launched against bats. While seemingly countless publications world-wide needlessly frightened millions of readers, Mongabay journalist, John Cannon, investigated and bravely countered the tide in his article, “Bats and viruses: Beating back a bad reputation,” published August 29.

Mongabay is one of the world’s leading environmental websites. It reaches 28 million readers in nine languages annually, making its defense of bats especially helpful at a time when bats are facing so much scary misinformation. We’ve listed actions you can take to share your thanks at the end of this post.

Lesser long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) are primary pollinators of agave plants essential to annual production of tequila and mescal worth billions of dollars to the Mexican economy. But thousands at a time have been burned in their caves due to unfounded fear.

(more…)

Read More

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.

(more…)

Read More

Bat Flash! Respond to Sensationalized Bat Attack Report

By Merlin Tuttle
6/12/17

Bats are currently facing the most harmful media campaign seen in more than 30 years. The latest outrage is an article titled “Bat attacks on humans increasing due to urbanization and deforestation,” published in the British online newspaper, The Independent, on June 3, 2017.

Once again, bats are plagued with a rash of sensational bat-attack and bat-disease stories, promoted by clever, but unscrupulous persons who know better. The motivation remains the same—greedy competition for public health funding. As noted by Mexico’s leading bat biologist and conservationist, Dr. Rodrigo Medellin, “unsupported statements and partial truths have been cleverly interwoven to present a picture that bats are the most dangerous, filthy, pathogen-harboring organisms on earth.” So-called virus hunters are linking already feared bats with deadly, but rare diseases, misleading governments to invest billions of dollars in projects of questionable value in saving human lives (USCDC 2015).

A Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) feeding on the tail of a sleeping cow in Costa Rica.

The current article in The Independent, is typical, first the scary headline that leaves a lasting impression on readers, despite later qualifiers, most of which go unread. The subtitle says, “Diseases in bats have been around for a long time and historically have not been a problem. Now, there is cause for concern.”

 

 

Those promoting this international campaign of fear are clever wordsmithers. They know just enough about bats and diseases to almost imperceptibly distort the truth, scaring people about potential, but unlikely events. Extremely low risks are made to seem imminent and possibly disastrous. And since neither bats nor viruses are well understood, they are ideal victims for such manipulation.

The article claims bats have been attacking humans in increasing numbers because their natural habitats are being destroyed through deforestation. This is a commonly propagated myth in recent scare stories. It appears to be an attempt to look like the writer isn’t anti-bat, but is simply attempting to be helpful. Bats nearly everywhere are in decline, and a growing proportion of the human population now lives in cities where there is less, rather than more likelihood of contact with bats. A veterinary college professor is quoted as saying that expanding cities are causing increasing contact—just the opposite of reality. The professor sounds like a reliable source, though he likely has no personal experience with bats.

Common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) are found only in Latin America. They appear to have been relatively rare prior to the arrival of modern humans who brought livestock that these bats now feed on. Though they have become a problem for ranchers, vampire saliva is reported to contain a “treasure trove” of molecules that one day may be used to save human lives. They are highly social animals that adopt orphans and share meals with less fortunate colony members.

It is reported that more than 40 people were bitten by vampires in just three months, with one death from rabies. But that’s in all of northeastern Brazil. This is likely one of the rarest causes of mortality that could have been reported for such a large area. Far more deaths likely occurred from bicycle accidents or dog attacks, though no one is likely to advocate ridding the area of bicycles or dogs!

The story verifies our worst concerns, reporting that authorities are “trying to control the bats, poisoning them and removing their roosting sites.” Highly beneficial species form the largest, most conspicuous colonies so they are the ones most easily found, becoming innocent victims of mass killing. In the current article, a doctor stresses that “Brazilian authorities must take the threat seriously.” And an accompanying photo shows an insect-eating bat, looking exceptionally vicious because it is snarling in self-defense.

Not until the next to last paragraph is it admitted that “Bats in the UK do not pose a threat to the human population.” This nearly universally repeated approach gives authors a disclaimer, but it appears deliberately located where it is least likely to be noticed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TAKE ACTION!

Choose any or all means of contact to reach out and share your opinion in your own words.

 

A Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus). The strange nose is a heat-sensing organ, enabling it to scan for capillaries concentrated near the skin surface of its prey.

 

Bibliography 

Annonymous. 2017. FY 2015-2019 Ebola response funding. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

Read More

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.

(more…)

Read More

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.

(more…)

Read More

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.

TAKE ACTION!

  • Choose any or all means of contact to reach out and send thanks in your own words.
    • 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.
      • Lindsey Doermann, Founder, Senior Editor, Anthropocene Magazine
      • Kathryn Kohm, Founder, Editor-in-Chief, Anthropocene Magazine
      • Brandon Keim, author
    • Twitter
    • Facebook

 

 

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.

 

Read More