COVID Restrictions: Good, Bad, or Indifferent?

Merlin Tuttle and Danielle Cordani

10/30/21

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.

Frequency and distribution of responses worldwide.
Frequency and distribution of responses by U.S. state.

Reported Restrictions 

Most countries are attempting to follow IUCN guidelines, but interpretations vary widely. Some require no restrictions, while others prohibit any bat work that includes close association with bats. In practice, reported restrictions often mean a complete cessation of research, training workshops, and/or rehabilitation.

 

Opinions 

  • 66% reported negative effects on their research, 32% very negative.
  • 67% reported negative effects on conservation, 30% very negative.
  • 65% reported negative effects on the perception of bats, 37% very negative.
  • 54% reported increased difficulty in obtaining research or education permits.
  • 61% reported decreased data collection.
  • 76% reported reduced training workshop opportunities. 
  • 72% reported reduced public education.
  • 88% reported increased mixed messaging to the public.
  • 65% reported increased public fear of bats.
  • 51% reported increased bat eradication attempts.
  • 85% believed that restrictions are less than fully effective, 15% very effective.

Comments From Responders

Responders from several U.S. states reported increased intolerance of bats roosting in buildings, and some even cited euthanization of non-listed species accidentally captured during field studies. We found a wide range of opinions over the effectiveness of current restrictions, but most expressed confidence in the potential for safely returning to work. 

 

There was also widespread frustration with inconsistent interpretations of what are “essential” versus “non-essential” activities and restrictions preventing work with non-listed species. Modifications to IUCN guidelines were announced on July 2, 2021. They included new instructions on assessing risk, clearly attempting to facilitate a return to work. Nevertheless, responders continued to report problems with government agencies due to subjective, often overly conservative, permitting decisions that hamper progress.

 

Interpreting Results

Survey responses revealed several unintended consequences of restrictions. Respondents reported a sharp decrease in conservation-relevant research, public education, and key training workshops for professionals, at a time when they are most needed. North Americans reported the most stringently enforced restrictions – in part due to continued enforcement of failed efforts to stop the advance of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome (WNS). The following quotes are representative of the most frequently written responses.

 

“With the potential listing of bat species due to the impact of WNS, biologists in the state are falling behind on inventory and monitoring. This will negatively impact the baseline data available if/when species are added to the ESA [Endangered Species Act]. Large scale bat capture efforts, including training and workshops, within Nevada have been cancelled for 2020 and 2021.”

Anonymous, Wildlife Biologist, NV, USA

 

“I’ve observed the following: (1) increased use of acoustics as a sole survey method to document bat presence, when for many species identification can only be done with a bat in the hand; (2) decreased hands-on training opportunities needed for furthering on-going bat survey objectives; and (3) increased animosity towards permitting agencies and departments of health due to their seemingly capricious decisions that single-out researchers and educators as possible vectors of COVID transmission to bats while ignoring the more expansive numbers of the general public who interact with bats on a daily basis.”

Janet Tyburec, Workshop Trainer & Environmental Consultant, AZ, USA

 

Eighty-five percent of respondents doubted that restrictions on professional bat workers could be fully effective in preventing COVID exposures from humans to bats. However, a wide range of opinions were reported. 

 

“I would like to see a reinstatement of all permits for research, inventory, and monitoring activities. While I personally don’t think it is necessary, I would be amenable to adding additional levels of PPE, such as masks and vaccinations, if it meant being able to resume bat work.”

Anonymous, Government Agency, USA

 

“Handling by vaccinated people with sensible restrictions, such as masks, gloves, and avoiding bat work when sick, should be required. If these conditions are met, bat handling should not be restricted.”

Bryan Hamilton, Government Agency, CA, USA

 

“Now we have one set of rules for researchers (the ones likely to take all precautions) and no rules for the public. It makes no sense.”

Todd Stefanic, Government Agency, ID, USA

 

An unprecedented resurgence of public intolerance of bats was reported. Some U.S. states were even identified as requiring extermination of bat colonies living in buildings. Historically, people who fear bats have killed thousands, even millions, in single incidents.1,2 Seventy-one percent of respondents shared concerns regarding the impact of mixed messaging as a threat to bat conservation. Visual images of researchers donning full PPE when approaching bats risk reversing decades of educational progress in overcoming irrational fear of bats as vectors for disease.

 

“Handling bats with PPE in front of local communities, even if meant to protect the bat, can trigger fear and misconceptions of bats.”

Natalie Weber, Wildlife Biologist, Germany

 

A recent survey conducted by Tigga Kingston examined community perceptions of bats since COVID-19. The results revealed strikingly similar themes. Participants from across 39 countries overwhelmingly cited “Fieldwork and Monitoring Restrictions” as the greatest negative impacts, closely followed by “Misinformation” and “Persecution [of bats]”.Fear of bats was reported to be growing, despite increased efforts to combat negative messaging and misinformation. Participants submitted no solutions on how to address persecution, clearly highlighting the need to put fears in perspective.

 

In our opinion, bats will continue to suffer from growing public fear for as long as they are defended, only because they are essential, while still being presented as uniquely dangerous sources of disease. When communicating with the general public, special efforts should be made to minimize any implication of bats being dangerous sources of disease and to clarify that PPE is needed to protect against human transmission of COVID-19.

 

Questions to Consider

1.      Can we prevent transmission of COVID to wildlife?

Humans appear able to transmit COVID to a wide variety of other mammals, from mice to deer, and even domestic cats and livestock, with little harm.4,5 COVID antibodies were recently discovered in 40% of white-tailed deer across four U.S. states. As with other non-primate mammals, they showed few, if any, signs of illness, and may already be spreading it to other species.6 Hunters were simply advised to follow normal procedures for safe processing and were quickly reassured that “Based on the available information, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low.”7

 

In sharp contrast, we are often warned of grave risks of COVID transmission either to or from bats. The apparent bias is reminiscent of rabies warnings that focused disproportionately on bats in the 1970s and 80s, making bat conservation nearly impossible.1,2

 

2.         Why are COVID restrictions uniquely focused on bat workers when rapid spread among other wildlife already appears to be beyond our control?

We can’t control the public’s interactions with bats. Thousands of people worldwide encounter bats that enter their homes, and additional thousands contact them while exploring caves. Countless more hunt bats for food or medicinal use.1 Most are not even aware of restrictions applied to professional bat workers. Their numbers dwarf those of professional bat workers. This raises another important question:

 

3.         Can wildlife exposure to COVID be prevented, and is the apparently low potential for success worth the cost?

References

  1. Tuttle, M. D. Threats to bats and educational challenges in Bat Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation 363–391 (2013). doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-7397-8_18.
  2. Tuttle, M. D. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Journal of Bat Research & Conservation 10, (2017).
  3. Rutrough, A., Kingston, T. & Tsang, S. M. Scientific perceptions of bat conservation and COVID-19: Insights from the International Berlin Bat Meeting 2021. GBatNet https://gbatnet.blogspot.com/2021/10/scientific-perceptions-of-bat.html (2021).
  4. Cohen, J. The hunt for SARS-CoV-2’s ancestors heats up. Science 373, 1076–1077 (2021).
  5. Fagre, A. et al. SARS-CoV-2 infection, neuropathogenesis and transmission among deer mice: Implications for spillback to New World rodents. PLOS Pathogens 17, e1009585 (2021).
  6. Chandler, J. C. et al. SARS-CoV-2 exposure in wild white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). bioRxiv 2021.07.29.454326 (2021) doi:10.1101/2021.07.29.454326.
  7. Murray, J. White-tailed deer can get COVID. Here’s what hunters need to know. Press Connects https://www.pressconnects.com/story/news/local/2021/09/28/white-tail-deer-covid-positive-new-york-hunters-safely-eat-meat/5815817001/ (2021).

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August 26th – Inaugural Merlin Tuttle Day

Teresa Nichta

8/30/21

We surprised Merlin – yes, actually surprised – with a birthday celebration for his 80th birthday on August 26, 2021, in Austin, Texas. And Mayor Steve Adler of the City of Austin officially proclaimed August 26th as Merlin Tuttle Day, in honor of his success in saving the city’s now world-famous bats.

Be it known that
 
Whereas,
Dr. Merlin Tuttle leads Austin, Texas as an international example of the value of living harmoniously with bats through his philosophy of winning friends, not battles; and
 
Whereas,
Through Dr. Tuttle’s efforts, millions of tourists visit Austin to watch and learn about the bats of the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, supporting healthy ecology, greatly boosting the economy, and creating business opportunities for local entrepreneurs; and
 
Whereas,
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is a non-profit organization, based in Austin, Texas, providing Dr. Tuttle’s world-class bat photography and unique conservation guides and resources, used by educators and conservationists globally, and defending one of Austin’s finest natural achievements; and
 
Whereas,
Dr. Tuttle has been a world leader in bat conservation for over 60 years and proudly resides in Austin, Texas;
 
Now, Therefore, 
I, Steve Adler, Mayor of the City of Austin, Texas, do hereby proclaim August 26, as Merlin Tuttle Day in Austin.
 
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the City of Austin to be affixed this 26th Day of August in the Year Two Thousand Twenty-One.
 
Steve Adler, Mayor, City of Austin

Austin is now a world leader in demonstrating that bats make invaluable and safe neighbors. Pictured above is our dear friend and partner, Mindy Vescovo, reading the proclamation aloud to Merlin on this auspicious day. Mindy also surprised all of us with a letter from Texas Monthly, rescinding the 1986 Bum Steer Award (Texas Monthly’s annual “Bum Steer Awards” poke fun at Texas politicians and policies, odd Texas-related news items and personalities from the previous year) that was awarded to Merlin when he first began his work in Austin, Texas. Batman lives, and has a clean record!

Then we all boarded a tour boat, provided by Capital Cruises, to view our little furry friends as they emerged from beneath the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, for a night’s hunt. We’re ever mindful that thanks to Merlin’s work and “winning friends, not battles philosophy, these bats now attract millions of tourist dollars each summer and consume tons of crop and yard pests each night.

Visible, a subsidiary of Verizon Wireless, filmed the event as part of a local campaign to celebrate Merlin’s part in Austin culture. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that a major American corporation has dared promote bat conservation as a popular issue.

Thank you to all who have submitted birthday wishes via videos, messages, posts, and donations. Merlin was delighted to hear from you!

 

Thanks also to Capital Cruises for donating their boat; to Real Minero OficialHeavy Metl, and Pinthouse Beer for donating delicious drinks; to HEB and Central Market for donating decorations and desserts; to Hugo for djing such superb sonic support; to Taco Deli for the iconic food; to Austin Batworks and Bat Conservation and Management for such wonderful silent auction donations; to our friend Mary Smith for the planning support; to Renee Cornue for taking photos; to Mayor Steve Adler, the city of Austin; and to Texas Monthly.

 

You all helped make this day so very special!

 

Thank you to all of you for recognizing and supporting Merlin’s incredible efforts and the impact that can only be accomplished with the generous support of many!

 

Merlin is looking forward to this next decade of defending and sharing the values of bats with the world.

We look forward to many happy Merlin Tuttle Days!

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Grey-headed Flying Foxes Find Friends in Bendigo Park, Australia

By Merlin Tuttle
6/24/21

For more than a century, Australia’s flying foxes have been misunderstood, hated, and persecuted. Targeted for extermination, countless thousands have been killed. Vast populations have been reduced to endangered status and are now additionally threatened by climate change and exaggerated disease warnings.

 

Nevertheless, as their primate-like sophistication and essential roles as forest pollinators and seed dispersers have become better recognized, growing numbers of Australians are coming to the rescue in the nick of time.

We congratulate the city of Greater Bendigo’s Rosalind Park Gardens Coordinator, Orrin Hogan, in Victoria for his personal efforts. Having seen more than 200 grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) perish due to a 2020 heatwave, he convinced the city council to support a novel idea—a rainforest canopy sprinkler system in the bats’ roosting area to provide cooling during extreme weather.

 

The park provides critical roosting habitat for up to 30,000 grey-headed flying foxes. Australia’s flying foxes have suffered an extreme loss of mature forests along rivers, their traditionally preferred roosting areas, known as “camps.” Today’s remnant populations have few options but to move into cities in search of mature trees in which to take shelter. Desperate city bats face higher temperatures as well as harassment from citizens who often find resulting noise and droppings objectionable.

A grey-headed flying fox in Australia.

Boosted by funds from Australia’s World Wildlife Fund and from the Victoria government, temporary canopy sprinklers were installed in time for the 2021 season. Aerial sprinklers distribute rain-like droplets on extremely hot days. They are turned on for only a few minutes hourly when the temperature reaches 40° C (104° F).

Mother grey-headed flying foxes roosting with young pups hidden beneath their wings.
A grey-headed flying fox pollinating a needlebark stringybark eucalyptus (Eucalyptus planchoniana).
Once acclimated, the bats appeared to enjoy the misting. They would approach sprinklers and spread their wings. Most importantly, no more deaths were detected during peak heat in 2021. Additionally, special efforts are being made to maintain tree health in the bats’ roosting area. This is important, as too many flying foxes occupying a single roost for too long can damage foliage. Hogan hopes his success may encourage additional communities to help Australia’s now desperate flying foxes.

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

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.

These bats roost in a single hectare of parkland. However, finding the thousands of tons of native fruit they require nightly necessitates additional protection of nearly 386,000 hectares of pristine forest, designated as the Kafinda Game and Management Area (GMA).

This critical forest is now seriously threatened. Approximately 5,000 hectares have already been illegally cleared for a game farm. And now Lake Agro Industries has submitted a formal proposal (called an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, or ESIA) requesting permission from the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) to clear 7,000 additional hectares of GMA habitat, just three kilometers from the park. The proposal includes authorization to draw water directly from the Luwombwa River which feeds the park’s vital wetlands. At peak demand, more than 90% of the river would be diverted, threatening the park’s very survival.

Here is the Kasanka Press Release.

**UPDATED PRESS RELEASE HERE.**

Loss of Kasanka’s bats could threaten whole ecosystems and economies across most of equatorial Africa, resulting in needless desertification, not to mention depriving humans of one of our planet’s greatest remaining wildlife wonders. These bats spread thousands of tons of seeds nightly, covering enormous expanses during seasonal migrations. The value of their ecoservices is almost unimaginable.

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Saving Bats One Cave and Mine at a Time

4/23/21
Merlin Tuttle

Caves are a critical resource for America’s bats. But thousands are no longer available for bats. Early American settlers relied on saltpeter from bat caves to produce gun powder. Then caves became lucrative for tourism, and many others were buried beneath cities or flooded by reservoirs. Even caves that were not destroyed often were rendered unsuitable for further bat use. Not surprisingly, the most cave-dependent bats quickly crashed to endangered status.

Today, nothing is more important to their recovery than identifying, restoring, and protecting key caves of past use. At that, Jim Kennedy is an unsung hero. Early in his career he joined me in critical research on the needs of cave-dwelling bats and worked with master bat-gate-building engineer, Roy Powers, to become an expert builder.

Kennedy became an expert at detecting evidence of past use by bats, and he has helped build gates to protect many of America’s most important remaining bat caves. He has also led workshops to train others. In 2013, he founded his own company, Kennedy Above/Under Ground, LLC. His teams have built 56 protective gates at 43 caves and abandoned mines where hundreds of thousands of bats have since recovered from severe losses.

Illustrative of the impact of protection at key locations, endangered gray bats at Bellamy Cave in Tennessee, increased from 65 to more than 150,000 once protected. And when a bad gate was replaced at Long Cave in Kentucky, gray bat numbers grew from zero to over 300,000. At Saltpeter Cave in Kentucky, endangered Indiana bats increased from zero to 7,000 when poor gates were replaced, air flow was restored, and winter visitor tours were terminated. Jim was involved in restoring each of these caves for use by bats. 

Jim Kennedy (right) and endangered Indiana Bat Recovery Team Leader, Rick Clausen, documenting recovery of Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis) in Saltpeter Cave, Kentucky. The species began rapid recovery in this cave following installation of an improved gate and airflow led by Jim.
Heather Garland, Tennessee Nature Conservancy Cave Specialist, and Merlin Tuttle conducting a winter census of recovered hibernating gray bats in Bellamy Cave.
Bellamy Cave in Tennessee provides both cold and warm roosts permitting year-around use by endangered gray bats (Myotis grisescens). Dramatic recovery occurred following protection. A 100-foot-long, 10-foot-high, perforated steel fence ensures long-term protection. The bats chose to fly over the fence instead of through the gaps. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy

Protection can be a real challenge. Even good gates, if wrongly located, can force abandonment partly because different species have unique needs. Gray bats, and other species that form large nursery colonies in caves, cannot tolerate full gates across entrances. Newly flying young slow down and become easy prey for predators. Jim has three ways of dealing with this. When a cave entrance is large enough, he leaves fly-over space above, relying on a perforated metal lip to prevent human entry. Alternatively, he sometimes builds a metal chute at the top, using perforated metal. When entrance size or shape precludes such approaches, he surrounds the entrance with a 10-foot-tall, perforated-steel fence. At Key Cave in Alabama, the Tennessee Valley Authority contracted Jim’s team early in 2021 to build a 390-foot fence that required 21 tons of steel. Its entrances were too small to permit young bats safe exit through gates.

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Inspiring Bat Conservation Through Photos

4/9/2021

By Teresa Nichta

The Bat Scan Project provides photo documentation, enabling a growing number of conservation projects and exhibits worldwide to share the values of bats. These photos are also heavily used in children’s books, school reports, and in both scientific and popular publications. For example, the Smithsonian’s book, BATS: An Illustrated Guide to All Species, exclusively relied on nearly 400 of Merlin’s photos.

We’re delighted to share a few highlights from recent use.

A Mexican long-tongued bat (Choeronycteris mexicana) pollinating agave flowers (Agave palmeri).
A California leaf-nosed bat (Macrotus californicus) catching a cricket.
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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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Severe Weather Takes Heavy Toll in Texas

By Merlin Tuttle
3/2/21

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.

Brazilian free-tailed bats about to emerge from their day roost in a bridge crevice in Austin, Texas.
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Bat Flash! Premature Speculation Revives Scary Headlines

8/13/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

A study published July 28th in Nature Microbiology titled, “Evolutionary origins of the SARS-CoV-2 lineage responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic,” implies a direct bat origin at a time when analyses remain woefully incomplete. Nevertheless, news media continue to sensationalize inconclusive speculation in a manner that needlessly demonizes bats and circumvents the scientific process:

BBC NEWS“COVID-19: Infectious coronaviruses circulating in bats for decades”

Popular Science—“The virus that causes COVID-19 has been silently brewing in bats for decades”

The Philadelphia Inquirer—“The next coronavirus may already be circulating in bats, study suggests”

Live Science—”Ancestors of coronavirus have been hiding out in bats for decades, ready to infect humans.”

Millions of tourists have safely observed bats close up in Austin, Texas without harm. Bat-watchers add millions of dollars to Austin's economy each summer.

None of these articles mentions either the exceptional value of bats or how rare it is to contract any disease from a bat. Readers need rational advice, not more cause for panic!

Failure to find an intermediate ancestor for SARS-CoV-2 is not a basis for concluding that bat-to-human transmission has occurred. 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.

The implied contention that bats are uniquely dangerous hosts of deadly coronaviruses is premature and inconsistent with current evidence. There is evidence of a horseshoe bat role in the early evolution of a SARS-like coronavirus. Nevertheless, Wenzel agrees, “common knowledge regarding SARS viruses is apparently not well supported.” There is a critical need to survey coronaviruses, far beyond bats. Finding the true source of COVID-19 transmission to humans is key to future prevention.

No patient zero has been found, leaving the route of transmission to humans a mystery. It is time to halt media headlines that misrepresent facts, risking the survival of already threatened bats, and diminishing confidence in science.

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Costa Rica’s Bat-Friendly Hotel

3/11/20

By Paula Tuttle

Merlin and I recently spent an especially productive week promoting bat conservation at the Harmony Hotel in northwestern Costa Rica. Merlin’s lecture, introducing the many values of Costa Rican bats, attracted a large and enthusiastic audience that included both hotel guests and community members.

Thanks to the owner’s passionate commitment to a healthy, sustainable environment, the hotel is a wildlife oasis in the midst of the small town of Nosara. Wherever possible, a lush profusion of native vegetation has been restored or introduced, serving as a magnet for animals, from howler monkeys, coatis and margay cats to large iguanas and an impressive variety of bats.

We quickly recorded more than a dozen bat species, belonging to five families, and introduced them to appreciative staff and guests. In fact, the proximity of multiple species posed the biggest challenge to use of a bat detector. The hotel may soon attract even more bats, as it intends to put up bat houses.

We were especially encouraged to learn of all the hotel’s progress toward environmental sustainability while maintaining top quality. The staff were outstanding. The food was healthy and delicious, and we thoroughly enjoyed the two evenings spent introducing the owners’ family and friends to the diverse array of bats found in their own yard.

Merlin has prepared a program on Costa Rican bats for the hotel to share with guests and in local schools, and we look forward to further collaboration.   

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