Leading epidemiologists are finally acknowledging that the recently huge expenditures for virus hunting (mostly focused on bats) have little practical value in disease prevention. The June 7 issue of Nature contains a key paper titled, “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction.” In it Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Anderson combine their expertise to advocate a much-needed change of course in prevention of viral transmission from animals to humans, one that may also considerably brighten the future of bats.
They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises about disease prevention.” They “urge those working on infectious disease to focus funds and efforts on a much simpler and cost-effective way to mitigate outbreaks—proactive, real-time surveillance of human populations.”
The new group arrived successfully and with bells on for Week 2.
We have three bats in training. Merlin trained a hairy big-eared bat (Micronycteris hirsuta) for photography. Within 15 minutes it was flying to his hand on call, rewarded with meal worms. Janell Cannon, the famous author of Stella Luna, trained a white-throated round-eared bat (Lophostoma silvicolum) to eat from her hand. Her bat has a very calm temperament. Alexis and Amy trained a Niceforo’s big-eared bat (Trinycteris nicefori) for photography, a very sweet and eager gal.
We’re just finishing up an incredible first week at Cocobolo and already caught 44 species of bats, everything from fishing bats to vampires, not to mention a wide variety of fruit, nectar, and insect eaters. Merlin added 10 additional species to his collection! Pygmy fruit-eating bats were found roosting in leaves they had cut to form “tents”.
Chestnut short-tailed bats were all around camp, feeding on piper fruit.
We caught more than 20 Common vampire bats. Frontier campesinos keep a few livestock not too far away, explaining the presence of so many vampires. Most of these seem to have lots of personality, enabling Merlin to get this cool photo. The trip participants had loads of fun shooting videos of the vampires running around on the ground on all fours.
MTBC’s Bat Adventures in Panama Week 1 group started out from our base camp for an energetic hike to the top of the mountain ridge. Some did it in 3.5 hours, some 6.5 hours, and everything in between. My GPS said I hiked 19,190 steps (about 10 miles!) and burned 2,701 calories. Some will go back at night to net for bats in this cloud forest where they hope to find different species than the ones found at the Cocobolo Nature Reserve banana plants, and along the lower river forest.
Merlin and Daniel Hargreaves, co-founder of Trinibats, have teamed up to co-lead two weeks of bat workshops at the Cocobolo Nature Reserve in Panama. The reserve is over 1,000 acres located about halfway between the Pacific and the Caribbean on the narrow Isthmus of Panama, about 35 miles wide.
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.
Choose any or all means of contact to reach out with your praise and encouragement on behalf of bats.
While the public continues to be pummeled with scary claims of dire threats of disease from bats, Merlin has been rallying crucial leadership collaboration from within the international research community. In September, he provided an hour lecture, followed by an enthusiastic hour-long discussion, for virologists and epidemiologists at Brazil’s Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. And several days later he provided the keynote address for a joint annual meeting of Brazil’s Bat and Mammal Societies, with special attention to helping conservation-minded students.
In November, Merlin presented the inaugural address for a joint meeting of the Biology and Ecology Societies of Chile. A key concern there involved how to prevent bat killing due to irresponsible warnings of disease. Amazingly, even in a country where only one person in all history had died of a bat disease (rabies), fear of bats due to exaggerated media stories reportedly is posing a serious threat to conservation progress. Concerned attendees at the conference were delighted to learn of our disease resources and other information and photos available for their use. They were also most appreciative for advice on expanding threats from wind energy and pesticides. Merlin additionally agreed to provide photos for the bat section of a new book on Chilean mammals.
“Actually this article neglected to mention another huge problem caused by these negative representations of bats. It’s not just about deliberate human killings of bats – even where bats are not being killed by people, the repercussions of this negative reputation are still damaging in indirect ways because it affects efforts and funding for research and conservation. I am currently the only person working on the conservation ecology of Pteropus in Malaysia, where there has been such a disproportionate amount of attention, effort, and money put into researching ONLY the virology and public health aspects of these bats. Hardly anyone is interested in looking at the conservation ecology aspect; never mind that these bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers, and are severely threatened by hunting – all topics which desperately require more attention and work. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be constantly approached by other researchers who are only interested in collaborating on virology, or to be told that I can only get funding if I include a disease and public health aspect in my project. Ultimately these bats will go extinct if people – including researchers and funders – are simply too focused on worrying about whether we’re going to catch diseases from them, instead of trying to mitigate the threats that we humans present to them. This kind of attitude is very, very damaging to bat conservation.”
Dr. Aziz is one of a very few researchers in her part of the world dedicated to helping people understand the economic and ecological importance of conserving flying foxes. Her research titled, “Pollination by the locally endangered island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) enhances fruit production of the economically important durian (Durio zibethinus),” recently appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution.
In her paper, she provides information critical to convincing islanders to protect flying foxes, namely that they are playing a key role as pollinators of one of Southeast Asia’s most valued crops, not causing damage as previously believed. She used camera and video traps to document that island flying foxes (Pteropus hyomelanus) do not damage durian flowers, as even some researchers had suspected. Video traps clearly absolved the bats. Island flying foxes and cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea) are major pollinators. The damage was caused by plantain squirrels (Callosciurus notatus) who often ate immature flowers.
Aziz also notes that flying foxes sometimes can become a nuisance when roosting too near people, causing both noise and odor problems. She hopes to find a way to harmlessly convince these bats to move farther away, so they will be more welcome. There is an urgent need for education to minimize negative biases while solving legitimate nuisances. Aziz emphasizes the need to find solutions to real problems instead of needlessly scaring people about rare threats.
She reports, “I have been using your [Merlin Tuttle’s] photos, especially the amazing shots of P. vampyrus, in all the presentations I give. It’s enormously helpful because the only shots I have of that species are the poor dead ones shot by a hunter, and it’s not a very nice picture at all. I think it would be almost impossible for me to get a good photo of P. vampyrus here in Malaysia! Your close-up shots of Pteropus pollinating and feeding on fruit are also particularly useful for illustrating bat ecosystem services – I used these in a public talk I gave, at an event organized by the Malaysian Heritage and History Club, which was very well received. And of course, I also used your photos in the awareness video! I now use them anytime I want to talk about bat ecosystem services.”
Aziz is devoting her career to helping people solve problems while benefiting from the essential contributions of flying foxes. If bats are to survive in sufficient numbers to fulfil their critical environmental and ecological roles, Aziz, and many more like her will need all the help they can get. Just saving a few endangered remnants is not enough!
We first met Alexis Valentine and her mother Amy, when Merlin spoke at an annual Discover Life in America conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2014. We’ve kept in touch ever since, encouraging her research and competition in local and regional science fairs. We were thrilled to hear that she had been awarded a full scholarship to represent the U.S. at the 14th Annual Jr. Foresters Science/Research Competition in Moscow, Russia. Forty-five participants from 28 countries and five continents presented projects, September 2-10 and Alexis won second place out of 40 awards. At 15, she was the youngest competitor to win an award, and also was the highest ranking American contestant in the competition’s history.
Last week, she did a fine job of presenting her research on the impact of white-nose syndrome on bats in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the annual teacher’s workshop held in conjunction with the NASBR 47th Annual Symposium on Bat Research in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Knowing Alexis had long dreamed of owning her own ultrasonic bat detectors for her research and public presentations, Merlin took the opportunity to introduce her to Ian Agranat, President of Wildlife Acoustics, the worlds’ largest producer of wildlife monitoring devices. Their Echo Meter Touch 2 Pro bat detector is one on Merlin’s favorite tools for introducing the public to bats, and he was delighted when Ian made Alexis’ long-time dream of owning her own equipment come true through his generous gifts which covered all her needs.
I wholeheartedly applaud Atlantic Monthly’s defense of bats at a time when so many other publications are spreading grossly exaggerated stories attempting to link bats to some of the world’s rarest but also scariest diseases. Bats have never needed help more, nor have we needed them more! As the one who persuaded the citizens of Austin to protect instead of eradicating its now world-famous colony, I’m proud to report that none of millions of tourists who come to enjoy their spectacular emergences has ever been harmed. By simply leaving bats alone (not attempting to handle them), we have exceedingly little to fear and much to gain. Our bats eat tons of crop and yard pests every summer night and attract millions of tourist dollars each year.
Thanks to people who increasingly understand and help bats, even those species most devastated by WNS are gradually beginning to recover. The only cure will come from improved protection and restoration of key bat habitats, especially their hibernation caves. It’s far too late, as well as impractical, to find a cure for WNS. Going forward, all resources should be devoted to recovery.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 50 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.