Bat Flash! Unveiling the Real World of Bats in a Time of Misinformation

9/15/2020

By Danielle Cordani

The avalanche of speculative reports associating bats with COVID-19 seems never ending. However, at a time of scary misinformation, bat researchers and conservationists worldwide are discovering new reasons to appreciate bats, some decades in the making.

In Central America, researchers from the Free University of Berlin analyzed communication between bat mothers and their pups. Just like humans talking to a baby, adult greater sac-winged bats (Saccopteryx bilineata) alter the “color” and pitch of their pup-directed vocalizations. Not surprising, this breakthrough indicates parent-offspring communication in bats is more complex than previously assumed. Further investigation of social feedback during vocal development in young bats may reveal even more shared language features between bats and humans.

A greater sac-winged bat (Saccopteryx bilineata) in Panama.

Across the Atlantic, a team of scientists in Africa used novel methods to describe more accurately the differences among bats. It turns out—as is common when studying bats—there is more than meets the eye. Comparison of the penis bones, echolocation calls, and genes of African vesper bats revealed three new species and two new genera. The discovery could mean new identification techniques for the often-indistinguishable group and clearer protections for unique bats and their ecosystems.

A banana pipistrelle (Afronycteris nana), showing its tiny size and one of its adhesive pads used for clinging to the inside of unfurling leaves.
Banana pipistrelles roosting in an unfurling banana leaf in Kenya.
Perhaps the most publicized bat discovery of 2020 was conducted by a group of scientists from Israel. Their groundbreaking study presents never-before-seen evidence of “cognitive mapping” in non-human animals. Using revolutionary tracking technology, Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) proved extremely sophisticated and efficient at navigation. Bats relied on goal-directed memory maps rather than landmark cues or sense of smell, seldom foraging at random.

Despite great scientific advances, improved communication is needed to successfully interpret and share bat values with others. Douglas MacFarlane and Ricardo Rocha have taken this into account. By applying conversation psychology, they provide communication guidelines that can help neutralize negative associations between bats and disease. Even scientists with good intentions may inadvertently undermine their message by failing to debunk misinformation.

Falsehoods and fear are easily created through misunderstandings. For example, in Iran and the Mediterranean, myths of mercury-containing “bat nests” began circulating over social media, inciting needless environmental destruction. In response, Iranian researcher, Dr. Hossein Zohoori, teamed up to create Mercury Mirage, a powerful documentary that discredited the untruths with stunning visual evidence.

We congratulate all who are persevering in unveiling the real world of bats in times when investigation, attention and resources have been so severely misdirected toward disease speculation. Discoveries of bat sophistication and values, and effective communication, have never been more important.

An Egyptian fruit bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus) pollinating a baobab flower in Kenya.

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We invite you to choose any or all means of sharing your THANKS and ENCOURAGEMENT for this positive press. We’re always especially excited to share praise-worthy Bat Flashes.

Our combined voices can make a difference. We invite you to briefly share your praise in your own words with producers and editors. They do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple. Just let them know you like or dislike an article. It’s numbers that count and bats need all of you! Tell a friend about bat values and how they can help. Thank you for your vigilant support of bats, their conservation, and MTBC.

Show your support in the comments at the bottom of each article and/or share on Facebook and Twitter!

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Improving Bat Houses in America:

Nearly 40 Years of Progress and Still Learning

9/14/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

Bat houses are outstanding tools for education. When I introduced them to Americans in 1982, my primary objective was to help people overcome fear and accept bats as valuable neighbors. That goal has been vastly exceeded. Today, hundreds of thousands of American bats live in a wide variety of bat houses.

Individuals who have carefully tested local bat preferences, and adapted accordingly, are reporting close to 90 percent occupancy. Nevertheless, there is still much to be learned. And that is why we’re initiating new collaborations.

Late last month, local member, Debbie Zent, founder of Austin Batworks, reported an impressive event. Her three-chamber nursery house had been caulked, sealed, and painted inside and out, and was mounted high on a streamside ranch building—a nearly perfect combination. But to find it overflowing with occupants just days later was surprising.

This Texas Hill Country bat house became overcrowded within days by Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis).
The house was ideally located approximately 18 feet up on a building beside a permanent creek where it receives only morning to mid-day sun.

Was this extraordinary success due to house or location quality, or were these bats simply desperate?

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Timely New Children’s Book

9/3/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

Life Upside Down

Australia’s Grey-headed flying-foxes

Leading wildlife photographer and conservationist, Doug Gimesy, has teamed up with award-winning media graphic artist, Heather Kiley, to produce an outstanding introduction to the upside-down world of grey-headed flying foxes. Through stunning photography, simple text, and eye-catching design, this book provides a timely introduction to some of the world’s most frequently misunderstood and intensely persecuted animals.

Victims of misunderstanding and mass eradication attempts, Australia’s flying foxes now survive only as tiny fractions of former numbers. Forest clearing has left them homeless and starving. Countless thousands have been killed in mass shooting campaigns, electrocution grids, and flame thrower attacks on their roosts, known as camps. Remnant survivors are now forced to live in cities where they are needlessly demonized as carriers of dreaded diseases, despite a long history of living safely with people or subjected to attempts of forced eviction with nowhere else to go. Welcomed honeybees, dogs, and especially humans are far more dangerous! Moreover, large numbers of flying foxes are essential to reforestation and the survival of much-loved animals such as koalas.

Readers of Life Upside Down will be introduced to the real world of flying foxes as safe and invaluable neighbors and learn how they can be helped. This full-color, large-format, 48-page book is available in hardcover for $19.95 at Australian Geographic or at Book Depository.  

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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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Bat Flash! Misleading Article Harms Bats and Public Health

7/17/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

A disappointing number of authors and publishers are spreading the false narrative that bats are exceptionally high-risk sources of deadly viruses. The July 12 edition of The Washington Post contained an article titled, “Why do bats have so many viruses?” The author, Rachel Ehrenberg, was apparently unaware of the most recent analysis of viral risks.

We urge Rachel and other Washington Post journalists to review Mollentze and Streiker’s April 28, 2020 comprehensive analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Their paper titled, “Viral zoonotic risk is homogeneous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts” concluded that bats are no more likely than other animals to host disease.

Virus hunters have focused search efforts disproportionately on bats, apparently because bats are exceptionally easy to sample in large numbers and have few defenders. Referring to the Covid-19 outbreak, Zhang and Holmes concluded that surveillance of coronaviruses in animals other than bats is critical to protecting against future outbreaks.

Sensational speculation, exaggerating bat association with scary viruses, has led to a serious bias that impedes our understanding of viral pandemics and creates a perfect storm of media publicity. This feeds into our broader academic crisis—the misallocation of large grants for splashy, attention-getting “research” that promotes career advancement over high-quality, reproducible scientific investigation. Such bias threatens to misdirect limited public health resources and halt, or even reverse, decades of conservation progress.

It’s time publishers, authors, researchers, and decision-makers let go of the premise that bats are uniquely dangerous sources of disease and end biased sampling and unsupported speculation. Instead, we need to identify true sources of human infection and insist on accurate reporting that leads to actual prevention.

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Bat Flash! CNN Misses the Mark

Response to CNN Program “Bats—The Mystery Behind COVID-19″

6/16/2020
By Merlin Tuttle

I applaud Anderson Cooper for his attempt to improve public perceptions of bats. His program included numerous reasons why we should appreciate and protect bats. Nevertheless, producers failed to alleviate needless fear by omission of key facts and addition of misleading narratives. Such approaches unfortunately solidify needless fear and can’t be countered by simply sharing bat values. For bats to be tolerated, fear must be eliminated.

Many researchers were reported to “believe” that COVID-19 came from bats. Bats were claimed to be reservoirs for the standard litany of deadliest diseases, including Ebola, though the source of Ebola and COVID-19 remains a mystery. Bats were clearly stated to harbor more zoonotic viruses than other animals, ignoring recent research refuting such claims. Furthermore, scientists shown studying bats wore sealed suits and full-face respirator protection, sending a strong visual message of danger.

A wonderful array of positive things were said about bats, and their essential ecosystem and economic roles were emphasized. However, without putting disease risks in perspective, advising viewers to respect bats while also warning against living near them is high-risk for negative consequences.  

Human encroachment into bat habitats was blamed for pandemic disease threats. However, it was not explained how expanding human populations could reduce pandemic risks simply by ending logging or invasion of new bat habitats. Nor was it explained how bats, restricted to their protected areas apart from where we live and grow crops, could possibly continue to shield us from mosquitoes in our yards or pests that attack our crops. 

Missing elements were conspicuous by their absence. There was no mention of the fact that millions of bats share cities with humans in America, Africa, Asia, and Australia without associated disease outbreaks. Nor was there mention of how easily disease transmission from bats can be avoided—in most of the world by simply not handling or eating bats. Even more troubling is the fact that program producers were well aware of these omitted facts.

On May 7 and 8, production staff conducted nearly two hours of phone interviews with me and Teresa Nichta and received abundant documentation from us. We even offered outstanding video footage showing the popularity of bat-watching tourism in Austin, Texas and planned to schedule filming at various sites in Texas upon their request. They seemed quite excited about our help, promising to get back to us in a few days with final plans. Then, they simply disappeared. We can’t avoid wondering who nixed the production staff’s enthusiasm for sharing such a key demonstration of bats making safe and invaluable neighbors. I suspect that Anderson Cooper will be surprised if ever he learns of this.

The bottom line — Frightened humans seldom tolerate and often kill bats. Programs that promote fear, regardless of good intentions, threaten bats and their essential services as valued neighbors.  

Please remember, there is no credible science documenting that bats are responsible for the transmission of COVID-19, Ebola, SARS, or MERS, to humans. Anyone implying such transmission is speculating. Be vigilant in your media consumption and sharing! 

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Good Intentions Can Still Leave a Bad Taste

5/29/2020

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.

Millions of wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats from Khao Chong Pran Cave in Thailand pass over thousands of tourists with whom local villagers do brisk business. Harvested guano sells for over $200,000 annually and the bats save local rice growers an estimated $300,000 per season. Despite decades of close contact, no disease outbreaks have occurred.

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!

Millions of tourists have safely observed spectacular bat emergences close-up in Austin, Texas for decades without harm. The bats consume up to 10 tons of insects nightly and attract millions of tourist dollars annually.

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.

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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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