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.
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.
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).
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.
Virologists are still doggedly pursuing the search for an Ebola reservoir in bats, as reported in the storytitled 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.
Response to Smithsonian story, “Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?” Merlin Tuttle
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.
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.
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. (more…)
Sensational National Public Radio Story Threatens Bats By Merlin Tuttle
Unfortunately, the normally objective and reliable NPR, in its broadcast interview titled, Why Killer Viruses Are On The Rise, has joined in spreading irresponsibly sensational fear of bats. The interview with a “virus hunter” is set in a Bornean rainforest. In the preamble, the announcer notes that, “It’s where deadly viruses hide out, waiting their chance to leap into a person and then spread around the world.”
At a time when bats and rainforests are both in alarming decline, and in desperate need of protection, the program goes on to portray them in the scariest of terms. The reporter notes that rainforests “have lots of crazy animals” that “have lots of crazy viruses” and explains that what the virus hunter “really wants is to catch a bat.”
When the first bat is caught it is described as cute, but the reporter quickly points out that, “bats are arguably one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They triggered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the pandemic of killer pneumonia back in 2003, that was called SARS, and they’re behind one of the viruses scientists think could cause the next big one, Nipah.” This is unproven speculation reported as fact. But it gets even worse.
As one who in 1985 played a lead role in convincing the New South Wales (NSW) Minister for the Environment and Planning, Bob Carr, to provide statewide protection for flying foxes, I am extremely disappointed to see such progress reversed decades later by a predecessor. Grey-headed flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers upon which many of Australia’s unique plants and animals rely.
Nevertheless, their numbers have declined dramatically over the past hundred years. They first were massively exterminated by fruit growers, because during periodic droughts, when forests failed to flower, starving bats would invade orchards. Thanks to excellent research, orchards can now be protected. However, the bats’ traditional roosting habitats often have been overrun by urbanization. Once again these bats are in trouble, often with few options remaining. In small numbers, they may be enjoyed. But during unpredictable spikes in gum tree flowering, these sophisticated commuters can be attracted long distances. When bats weighing up to two pounds and having wingspans of more than three feet suddenly increase by as much as 10-fold, noise and odor can become a serious problem.
Excellent means of protecting fruit orchards have been developed, but urban nuisances have not yet been studied sufficiently to find viable solutions. As flying fox experts, Justin Welbergen and Peggy Eby recently explained in their insightful article, Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying foxes in urban Australia, grey-headed flying foxes can travel thousands of kilometers in a single year and quickly respond to changing conditions far beyond the boundaries of any one state. To resolve nuisances without loss of essential services, we must learn much more about what attracts them to specific roosts and how best to provide suitable alternatives when their choices create nuisances. (more…)
What’s going on? The October 26, 2016 issue of ScienceDaily published an especially misleading story that poses a direct threat to both bats and public health. In this story, a fragment of an influenza A-like virus was discovered in a Latin American fruit-eating bat. The initial conclusion was that it posed “little, if any, pandemic threat to humans.”
A team of lab scientists then used this new influenza-like material to bio-engineer a new influenza virus. To do this, they analyzed cells from over 30 different viral species for their capacity to become hosts. Then the cell that was most susceptible to the engineered virus was tested and found capable of infecting a variety of cells, including those of humans.
The resulting publication ends with this self-serving justification. “Bats are natural hosts for several highly pathogenic viruses. In the past, Ebola and rabies virus were repeatedly transmitted from bats to humans and caused deadly diseases. The new observation that human cells can be infected with bat influenza A-like viruses is a hint that these viruses could also potentially be transmitted to humans. Although there is no evidence yet for such transmissions, the new findings are a wake-up call for more research.”
The claim that Ebola has been repeatedly transmitted from bats to humans is false, completely lacking in scientific documentation, and the authors fail to admit that bat-transmitted rabies is one of our planet’s rarest human disease threats. It’s time to focus on real threats, like cancer and obesity. (more…)
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 60 years of in-depth knowledge and experience Merlin Tuttle, renowned bat expert, educator and wildlife photographer founded MTBC with one true goal in mind; teaching the world to understand and appreciate the vital contributions bats make to human beings and the world we live in.