By Merlin Tuttle and Danielle Cordani
Wrong approaches in defense of bats can be even worse than not defending them at all. Articles, such as the one published in the May 15 issue of Scientific American, “Bats are Not Our Enemies,” are meant to defend bats, but can unwittingly perpetuate needless fear and intolerance. As experience has shown, despite good intentions, nothing can threaten bats more than fear.
The article’s subheading, “The viruses they carry spill over into humans mostly when we encroach on their territory or drag them into ours—and bats do great good as well” does nothing to quell fear. Readers should be wary of praising articles that include misleading statements about disease or ones that promote separation from bats as a solution.
Without putting disease risks in perspective, simply stating the value of bats cannot counteract the belief that bats are dangerous sources of deadly diseases, capable of threatening one’s family. People will always prioritize their own well-being rather than protect animals they fear. A study, currently in press, surveyed people on their willingness to support bat conservation. Support improved significantly only when fear was eliminated.
There is no documentation that Ebola, SARS, MERS, Hendra, or COVID-19 have ever been transmitted from bats to humans, though bats are often presented as the source of human infection. Such diseases are also mentioned as though they are widespread, without admitting that they (excluding COVID-19, of course) are rare or limited to specific geographic areas. For example, Americans have been warned that poop from a flying bat can give them Ebola, omitting mention that Ebola reservoirs are known only from Africa and haven’t been documented in bats even there!
The study on which most media reports are based was clearly biased, claiming that bats harbor more viruses than other animals. It compared just 4 of the 26 orders of mammals and sampled nearly twice as many bats as all other mammals combined. Since new viruses can be found anywhere, a disproportionate search can be misleading. A far more thorough study recently concluded that bat species harbor no more viruses than other mammals or even birds, though it’s received very little media attention.
The recently promoted idea of restricting bats to protected areas is impractical and impossible to implement. As human populations expand, there is increasing need to share habitats. Even huge bat colonies can be safe neighbors, as demonstrated in cities like Austin, Texas. In fact, humans can benefit greatly. How can bats protect us from pests, pollinate crops, or generate tourist revenue if excluded from our farms and neighborhoods?
Limiting habitat destruction is critical to preserving biodiversity and ensuring the survival of many species. However, it’s imperative that we learn to live harmoniously with wildlife wherever possible. Bat survival increasingly demands that we not only protect their natural habitat but share ours as well.
For people who don’t attempt to handle or eat bats, the odds of contracting any disease from them are extremely remote. People have learned not to kick beehives or run into yards guarded by unfamiliar dogs; they can just as easily learn not to handle bats.
There is no documentation that Ebola, SARS, MERS, Hendra, or COVID-19 have ever been transmitted from bats to humans, though bats are often presented as the source of human infection. Such diseases are also often mentioned as though they are widespread, without admitting that they (excluding COVID-19, of course) are rare or limited to specific geographic areas. Nevertheless, bats still have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with humans.
For anyone who simply doesn’t handle bats, the risk of contracting a disease from one is extremely remote.
Please use these resources and citations to share the truth about bats as safe and valuable neighbors.
(Last updated March 2021)
- Bats harbor no more viruses than other animals1.
- Claims of disease from bats are often based on poorly supported speculation2,3.
- Reports of 96% genomic similarity between viruses are misleading without proper perspective. We are at least that related to chimpanzees but remain vastly different4.
- Promises to predict future pandemics are misdirecting billions of dollars to virus hunting that is biased against bats and could be better invested in other public health priorities5,6,7.
- Bats have an undeniable history of living with humans without causing disease outbreaks8.
- There is a long history of exceptionally harmful disease exaggerations against bats9.
- Fear of bats leads to intolerance and killing9,10 .
- Asking people to conserve bats because they are beneficial, while failing to counter exaggerated fear, is unlikely to improve conservation success10.
- There are no confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from bats to humans11.
- SARS, MERS, SARS-CoV-2, and Ebola have not been isolated in a bat, nor proven to be transmitted from a bat to a human, despite frequent speculation and intense searching12,13,14,15,16.