By illustrating scientific discoveries with spectacular photography, we equip others worldwide to overcome fear and inspire appreciation of the key ecosystem roles of bats. Our members have opportunities to contribute, both financially and personally, in making a measurable difference.
Recently, Partner Members Mindy Vescovo and Kathy Estes, funded and assisted me, our Workshop Advisory Trustee Daniel Hargreaves, our Program Coordinator Danielle Cordani, and Videographer Joey Chapman, in field photography and education in Costa Rica. We visited multiple locations including Fiona Reid’s Sylvan Falls and Harmony Hotel.
The major decline of traditionally abundant species, in Costa Rica and throughout Latin America, is cause for serious concern. In just a few days, we took a thousand new photos and recorded eight hours of video, covering 14 bat species. Many of these will soon be available in our photo gallery for use wherever needed.
The series Curious Kids, hosted by The Conversation, is designed to provide expert answers to questions asked by children from around the world. The December 16 edition, “Curious Kids: why do bats pass diseases to humans” is filled with media-driven disinformation that harms both the credibility of science and conservation efforts for bats, while doing nothing to dispel unfounded fear.
The question, “why do bats pass deadly diseases like Ebola to humans,” is proposed under the assumption that bats carry more diseases than other animals. Early in the article, the author states “Bats are both more likely than other animals to have a wide variety of diseases like Ebola, rabies, and coronaviruses and more likely to pass them on to us.”
This assumption is based on one of the most cited studies that wrongly accuses bats of hosting more viruses than other mammals, wherein the authors surveyed twice as many bats as all other mammals combined. Because new viruses can be found wherever we look, it is not surprising to find more in the animals that are predominately searched. More inclusive research concluded that bats do not harbor more viruses than other animals, though it has been mostly ignored by those seeking media attention.
In fact, despite relentless searching and endless speculation, SARS-CoV-2, SARS, MERS, and Ebola viruses have not been found in a bat, nor is there documentation of transmission from a bat to a human. The record of unsubstantiated speculation attributing Ebola to bats is long, despite the earliest outbreaks being traced to the consumption of chimpanzees and gorillas, not bats. Recent research indicates that Ebola has been endemic in humans over long periods of time, possibly across generations, and that such evidence has been repeatedly ignored in a rush to blame bats.
In truth, bats have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with humans. In Austin, Texas, the spectacular evening emergence of 1.5 million bats has become a world-famous tourist attraction, and no one has been harmed. Dire warnings of disease from bats come from those who profit from fear. For anyone who simply doesn’t attempt to handle bats, the odds of contracting a disease from one are extremely remote!
Children need to learn to appreciate, value, and live safely with nature, not fear it.
Many who work with bats have been impacted by efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from humans. We circulated the following opinion survey to better understand their views. Survey objectivity is notoriously difficult to achieve, but we have attempted to cover the full range of opinions provided.
Methods and Limitations
We digitally distributed our survey globally, on March 17, 2021. Through today, we have received 96 responses from professional bat workers in 29 U.S. states and 13 additional countries. Seventy-five percent of respondents were biologists involved in bat research or management, and 25% were bat rehabilitators and educators who interact with the public. Occupational differences resulted in the removal of “Not Applicable” responses. Confidentiality was promised, but some reportedly abstained for fear of negative impacts from reviewers of permits or grants. Quoted respondents gave permission. Results are limited to those who chose to report and by the completeness of their reports.
Inner Space Cavern, located in Georgetown, Texas, has become a bat education center thanks to cooperative tricolored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) and tour guides who love them. More than 300,000 visitors a year will have a close-up encounter with bats during their guided tour.
Tricolored bats can be seen year-round, often roosting within a few feet of passing visitors. Assistant Manager, Patty Perlaky, commented, “I think one of the most exciting things for people, especially the children, is to see a live bat in real life, not on TV.”
The cave itself has a long and fascinating history. Approximately 13,000 to 32,000 years ago it had up to five entrances, some quite large. Ancient bones and carbon dating reveal the cave was visited by saber-toothed cats, jaguars, ground sloths, spectacled bears, dire wolves, camels, and even an occasional mammoth.
Calvin Butchkoski wasn’t privileged to attend graduate school. In fact, he never even took a course in bat biology while earning an associate degree in wildlife technology at Penn State. Yet, he became his state’s all-time leader in bat conservation. His amazing career is a testament to the power of following one’s passion while caring for both bats and humans.
Unable to find employment as a biologist, he served in the Marine Corps for three years after college. Finally, in 1982, he was hired as a biology technician by the Pennsylvania Game Commission where he assisted in studies of wild turkeys, bears, and even packrats for two years. He didn’t discover his true passion until assigned to work with bat expert, Dr. John Hall.
Despite a late start and lack of formal training, mostly self-taught, Cal quickly became one of America’s foremost bat conservationists. In fact, he led Pennsylvania to become a national model. His achievements include key bat house discoveries, the establishment of America’s first citizen science bat counts, protection for the state’s most important hibernation sites in caves and mines, special training for hundreds of state and federal employees, and highly successful public education campaigns.
Cal led early research on the most appropriate bat house designs for Pennsylvania and helped homeowners solve nuisance problems caused by too many bats attempting to live in walls and attics. His bat house alternatives saved thousands of bats from extermination. And homeowners often became citizen scientists volunteering their help with annual emergence counts.
Given overall warming trends, we weren’t surprised to see some 70 to 80° F days in January and February of 2021. But that hardly tells the full story!
Beginning on February 10th, historically low temperatures were recorded across Texas. For eight consecutive days (February 10–18), the temperature hovered between 37° and 9° F with six inches of snow on the ground in Austin, Texas. The first reasonable feeding opportunity for bats likely didn’t occur before the 21st.
The last similar event occurred 32 years ago in 1989. In a 9-day period (December 16–24) the daily temperature ranged from 51 to 4° F but remained below freezing for only two days versus seven in 2021. Fewer people were concerned in those days, but at least hundreds of killed bats were reported.
For many years we’ve wondered just how many Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) could cram into a single 18-inch-deep bridge crevice. Accurate counts of large colonies are difficult no matter how they’re made. However, when estimating bridge colonies, it would help if we knew the number, using an average horizontal foot of crevice.
The solution seemed easy. Two years ago, Glen Novinger, an MTBC member and I, inserted two, three-quarter-inch-thick wooden frames, each encompassing a square foot of interior space, into bridge crevices of the same width while the bats were out feeding. The idea was to later slowly remove them, forcing those roosting inside to exit into a cloth-lined bag from which we would count them.
However, the bats were full of surprises. The first night we waited patiently till half an hour after we’d seen the last ones leave—or at least that was what we thought! But when we approached to install our devices, roughly half remained inside. I couldn’t help but wonder how many emergence counts had missed those that, for whatever their reasons, didn’t emerge at sundown. (more…)
Every year around this time there is a spike in needlessly sensational rabies stories featuring exaggerations of truth. We always encourage others to respond politely to editors, authors, decision makers and media personnel when they see these. Editors’ jobs depend on readership and they do aim to please. They just need to know you like or dislike an article. Responses can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate sensational headlines or speculation that creates needless fear of bats.”
We work hard to be a source for your personal ambassadorship of bats and wish we could respond to every article, however our resources are limited. We cannot do it alone. We hope that this post will supplement your future responses when you encounter false or exaggerated bat publicity.
Unfortunately, this well intended story is a sensational exaggeration of truth. It is correct to say that most human rabies in America comes from bats. However, put in context, it’s just 1-2 cases per year, making it one of the rarest causes of death. By comparison, just by riding one mile in a motorized vehicle, an American exceeds his/her annual risk of rabies from any source.
Because even sick bats almost never bite, except in self-defense if handled, the risk of contracting any disease from one is exceedingly low for anyone who simply leaves them alone. In Austin, Texas, thousands of people gather nightly to observe the spectacular emergences of 1.5 million bats close-up. And in decades of this exceptionally close association, no one has been attacked or contracted a disease.
Post-exposure rabies vaccinations in the United States are outrageously overpriced, currently costing from $10,000 to $22,000 per person treated. With huge profits at stake, and our CDC heavily influenced by drug companies, promotion of exaggerated fear is not surprising. Unprovoked bites are exceedingly rare, so much so that I have yet to experience one despite close association with millions of bats worldwide for more nearly 60 years.
Human rabies cases are often diagnosed post-mortem or after the patient is incoherent. Even in cases in which parents or friends report bites, the U.S. CDC reports “no bite history” unless the patient is able to confirm. Consequently, human cases, regardless of animal origin (i.e. bat, dog, skunk or raccoon) often get reported as having no bite history. Huge misrepresentation occurs when such reports are used to disproportionately frighten people of bats.
Since 1996 the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has advised consideration of post-exposure prophylaxis for “persons potentially exposed to bats even where a history of physical contact cannot be elicited,” unless prompt diagnosis excluded rabies. Based on its independent analysis Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization, opted not to follow CDC’s recommended bat policy. They do not advise vaccination unless there has been direct contact. For detailed documentation, see Rabies in Perspective.
At Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation we’re overjoyed to finally launch our membership campaign. Members at the Leadership level or above were given priority invitations to view the famous Congress Avenue Bridge bat emergence with Merlin aboard a chartered Capital Cruises boat. We all gathered at the Hyatt Hotel’s lounge for drinks (and queso) and to meet and get acquainted. The first member to sign up for the cruise was Janell Cannon, the author of the classic children’s book Stellaluna. Janell graciously signed copies of her book, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary!
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has set world records when it comes to helping bats, and that special help is paying big dividends for Texans and for countless visitors. Thanks to the enthusiastic early leadership of Supervising Bridge Engineer, Mark Bloschock and the continuing efforts of Stirling Robertson, now in charge of Strategic Projects, and John Young, an Environmental Specialist, TxDOT is taking great pride in its accomplishments.
On August 21, Stirling and John organized a special bat evening for 30 of TxDOT’s most important media and public information officers. They each received a copy of Department’s new guide to bat watching at state bridges, attended my 20-minute presentation at TxDOT headquarters, then joined me for a special Congress Avenue Bridge bat watching evening. We were delighted when we learned that Mark, who is now retired, would be able to join us.
The bats performed beautifully, and Stirling reported, “There has been overwhelming positive response to your talk and the whole event. Good stuff!” A big thank you to Stirling for making this event possible! We look forward to future collaboration and many more bats in Texas bridges.