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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Floral Adaptations to Bats May Guide Our Future

12/13/2020
By Ralph Simon

In October of 2011, Merlin, his wife Paula, and I, accompanied by National Geographic science writer Susan McGrath, began the incredibly difficult task of, for the first time, documenting a wide range of highly specialized flower adaptations to facilitate bat visitation in Costa Rica, Cuba, and Ecuador. Following three months of little sleep, red tape, floods, terrible roads, and seemingly endless searches, we finally were able to photographically document the amazing adaptations of very special plants, echo vines, old man’s beard cactus, and sea bean vines, which attract nectar bats with their acoustics (original project report).

Nectar bats must make hundreds of visits to flowers every night to find enough nectar to survive. As one can imagine, finding small flowers in the dense vegetation of a tropical forest can be challenging. But plants have evolved exceptional adaptations to help bats find their flowers. First, they provide special odors, often like garlic, cabbage, or sulfur, not attractive for humans but bats love them! Many bat-pollinated flowers have thick, waxy surfaces that reflect exceptionally strong echoes, helping bats use echolocation to find them from greater distances.

A few flowers even provide conspicuous echo-reflectors to help guide bats to their nectaries. These reflectors stand out through a wide radiation pattern, which means that bats receive loud echoes audible from many directions. They basically work like an acoustic cat’s eye (retroreflector). And they also reflect a unique spectral signature, like a fingerprint, which bats can easily identify. Behavioral experiments show that if these reflectors are missing or blocked with a piece of cotton, the flowers are rarely visited by bats, demonstrating their importance.

The most specialized flowers are found in relatively stable, tropical areas. In locations where climate and associated pollinators are less predictable, many plants hedge their bets by opening at night but remaining open and receptive for some or all the following day. This serves as insurance in case bats don’t visit. The rare echo vine (Marcgravia evenia) is such a species. It grows in low abundance in some of Cuba’s densest tropical forests. Bright red, and frequently visited by hummingbirds, it was long believed to be mainly hummingbird-pollinated.

A Leache’s long-tongued bat (Monophyllus redmoni) pollinating Marcgravia evenia in Cuba, and a Cuban emerald hummingbird is getting a free meal without pollinating. The upturned leaf reflects bat echolocation, guiding their approach like airport landing lights guide pilots at night. In fact, neither insects nor hummingbirds are large enough to contact the plant’s reproductive organs, so even when they find Marcgravia flowers, they rarely achieve pollination. 

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Exploring Ecuador’s Los Cedros Reserve

4/15/2020
By Teresa Nichta

This rainy February, we visited Los Cedros Biological Reserve in Ecuador.

Roo Vandegrift, and crew, are filming Marrow of the Mountain; a documentary about the mega-mining now in Ecuador. “In 2017, the amount of land available for mining expanded by hundreds of percent, leaving huge swaths of Ecuador’s most sensitive and biodiverse habitats at the mercy of international mining interests. These concessions appeared suddenly and were sold without public knowledge or consent, especially affecting the mineral-rich and endangered Choco Rainforest.” Roo invited MTBC to conduct a bat survey, which could support litigation to stop the illegal gold mining and help protect the reserve’s unique flora and fauna. The data is to track diversity and endemism at Los Cedros, and analyses are submitted to conservation groups and government agencies, like Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the Ecuadorian state Institute for Biodiversity (part of the Ministry of Environment).

Los Cedros Biological Reserve consists of 17,000 acres of premontane wet tropical forest and cloud forest. Of this, 2,650 acres is formerly colonized land, while the remainder is primary forest. The reserve is a southern buffer zone for the 450,000-acre Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, and both are part of the Choco Phytogeographical Zone. The Choco region is one of the most biologically diverse and endemic habitats on Earth.

Part of its charm is the journey to get there. Monica and I left our Quito AirBnB at 5 am to board a 3-hour long bus ride to Chontal, where we met Marc Dragiewicz of Eyes of the World Films. It was then just a short 30-minute truck ride to the trailhead. 

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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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Thai Adventures Part 4: Khao Chong Pran

2/19/20

By Merlin Tuttle

For me, our trip highlight was the visit to the Khao Chong Pran Cave in Ratchaburi Province. Nearly 40 years ago Buddhist monks who owned the cave had asked my advice. Their monastery relied on bat guano fertilizer sales for support. But in 1981 production was plummeting. Of course, and the monks wanted to know why.

Merlin and Surapon reminiscing about their first visit to Khao Chong Pran Cave nearly 40 years earlier.

Before dawn the next morning, my then young field assistant and interpreter, Surapon Duangkhae, and I discovered poachers using large fish nets to capture bats at the cave entrance. They were selling them to local restaurants. We hired two of the poachers to help us document the extent of the problem, then advised the monks to hire a game warden to protect their bats.

Merlin answering game warden’s questions in 1989.
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Thai Adventures Part 3: Cave Bats

12/26/19

By Daniel Hargreaves

We arrived at sunset at the OurLand Nature Reserve in Kanchanaburi Province, our home for the next 5 days. We quickly set up a few mist nets and a harp trap and were rewarded with a brace of lesser false vampire bats (Megaderma spasma) and several cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea). Merlin took the opportunity to show the group how to train a bat. Unfortunately, the chosen bat was unusually difficult. However, just over an hour later it eagerly permitted Merlin to approach, enticing it to drink from a syringe filled with sugar water.

The next morning, we climbed 200 steps in search of roosting bats located in two caves above a monastery occupied by Buddhist shrines.

Group climbing the steps to the cave with Kate in the lead.
Group entering cave.
Daniel Hargreaves showing the first tiny bumblebee bat to our group.

Initially, we captured a long-winged tomb bat (Taphazous longimanus) but as the group was looking at that one, I netted two bumblebee bats (Craseonycteris thonglongyai). Both were females weighing around two grams. They were delicately held by group participants while I explained the species’ anatomy, ecology, and conservation status.

Mindy excited to be holding a famously tiny bumblebee bat.
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Thai Adventures Part 2: Flying Foxes

1/21/20

By Daniel Hargreaves

Several hours after leaving the painted bat village, we arrived at the Wat Chantaram, Buddhist temple, in Ang Thong province. The monks protect Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in the courtyard. We explained the ecology and diet of the species and how the group should approach the colony to minimize disturbance. Slowly approached, most of the bats remained calm allowing us to watch them grooming as they prepared to depart for the evening. The bats steadily increased their activity and their chattering became louder as they started to fly out in all directions, leaving the temple grounds in search of fruiting or flowering trees. As the bats were leaving, we could hear the monks chanting inside the temple providing a magical backdrop to the evening.

Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in Jantraram Temple courtyard, protected by monks in Thailand.

The following morning, we headed to Bang Pahan village in search of a second Lyle’s flying fox camp (a colony roosting site). The bats had set up camp alongside the river and after several attempts we discovered a spot where we could get closer.

Our focus was on photographing these roughly four-foot wingspan bats as they flew among roost trees. These weren’t as well protected, and something had made them nervous. They had a right to be, as some had wing membranes were perforated with holes from apparent shotgun pellets. Our group looked in awe as hundreds of these flying giants took to the sky, moving farther along the river.

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Thai Adventures Part 1: Painted Bats

1/24/20

By Daniel Hargreaves

Following a 6-hour road journey from Bangkok we arrived at our first destination, the painted bat village. With only two hours left before sunset, we split into two teams. One assisted Merlin with setting up the flight studio. The other went to find a painted bat to photograph in the studio that evening. Team two headed out in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors. They quickly spit into small groups furiously searching the dried leaves of banana plants for bats. 

Riding in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors to find painted bats.

It wasn’t long before we found a single male painted bat (Kerivoula picta) hanging in a dried leaf about a meter from the ground. The bat had been banded for research, so although a good candidate, we didn’t disturb him and continued our search for more. Less than 200 meters away we found another male this time without a band. We quickly checked his weight at 4.6 grams (less than the weight of a U.S. nickel) and decided he was a perfect candidate for flight cage training.

This one was carefully placed in a soft bag, and to ensure picture and set authenticity we took the bat and the leaf he was roosting in back to the village. (There was no shortage of such leaves.) Leanne Townsend balanced precariously on the back of a moped, holding the bat and set material, as it sped to the village in order to setup for the night’s photography. As our Thai hosts prepared a banquet for their guests, Merlin got to work on the set, helped by an enthusiastic group of members fascinated to watch the master at work. As soon as the set was ready, we fed and watered the little star and released him into the studio. The group looked on as his shallow wing beats resembled that of a butterfly. He investigated every corner of the studio until he was sure there was no easy escape, then entered his now relocated roost.

Photo: Daniel Hargreaves
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A Model Example of Bat Recovery Potential

By Merlin Tuttle
9/25/19

Long Cave, in Kentucky, like many others, has a long history of human occupation with little record of prior use by bats. It was mined for saltpeter, a key ingredient of gun powder, during the war of 1812 and was subject to commercial tourism, probably beginning at about the turn of the century, ending by the 1930s.

 

Huge passages trapped cold air and remained cool year-round, offering major opportunities for bat hibernation. Roost stains from past bat use were widespread, and the cave clearly had potential to shelter millions. As recently as 1947 some 50,000 bats, presumed to be largely the now endangered Indiana myotis (Myotis sodalis), continued to return in winter. Nevertheless, entrance barriers built to exclude non-paying tourists, increasingly restricted air flow, eventually culminating in a concrete wall and a nearly solid door.

The bat population plummeted, leaving only roost stains as evidence of extraordinary past use. By the time that Mammoth Cave National Park was established in 1941, few bats could be found in the park’s caves, and those that remained weren’t yet recognized as either important or endangered.

By the early 1990s, as characteristic bat roost stains began to be recognized, the huge historic importance of several of the park’s caves began to be suspected. Cave Resource Management Specialist and Research Coordinator, Rick Olson, invited me and several colleagues to lead an investigation. We quickly found unmistakable evidence, of past use by at least 9-13 million bats, perhaps more than twice that many, mostly endangered gray (Myotis grisescens) and Indiana myotis.

Rick Toomey and Merlin Tuttle waiting for group to enter bat-friendly gate at Long Cave.
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Renowned Photographer Aids Australia’s Flying Foxes

7/22/19
By Merlin Tuttle

 

Two grey-headed flying foxes, Pteropus poliocephalus, hang form a tree branch during a rain shower.

Doug Gimesy ranks among the very best when it comes to wildlife photographers. His numerous awards include winning the Wildscreen Panda Photo Story Award in 2018 and selection as the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year in 2019. But most importantly he is changing the way the world thinks about nature, having a heart for Australia’s much maligned flying foxes. He explains, “My hope is that the images and information I share will inspire people to stop, think, and treat the world a little more kindly.”

Doug is persuasively teaching the world about Australia’s flying foxes, from his story, “Night Gardeners” in the BBC Wildlife Magazine to “Urban battler” in Australian Geographic. View more of his flying fox photos on his site. (more…)

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