Bat Flash! Response to The Conversation

12/28/2021

By Merlin Tuttle

The series Curious Kids, hosted by The Conversation, is designed to provide expert answers to questions asked by children from around the world. The December 16 edition, “Curious Kids: why do bats pass diseases to humans”  is filled with media-driven disinformation that harms both the credibility of science and conservation efforts for bats, while doing nothing to dispel unfounded fear.

 

The question, “why do bats pass deadly diseases like Ebola to humans,” is proposed under the assumption that bats carry more diseases than other animals. Early in the article, the author states “Bats are both more likely than other animals to have a wide variety of diseases like Ebola, rabies, and coronaviruses and more likely to pass them on to us.”

 

This assumption is based on one of the most cited studies that wrongly accuses bats of hosting more viruses than other mammals, wherein the authors surveyed twice as many bats as all other mammals combined. Because new viruses can be found wherever we look, it is not surprising to find more in the animals that are predominately searched. More inclusive research concluded that bats do not harbor more viruses than other animals, though it has been mostly ignored by those seeking media attention.

In fact, despite relentless searching and endless speculation, SARS-CoV-2, SARS, MERS, and Ebola viruses have not been found in a bat, nor is there documentation of transmission from a bat to a human. The record of unsubstantiated speculation attributing Ebola to bats is long, despite the earliest outbreaks being traced to the consumption of chimpanzees and gorillas, not bats. Recent research indicates that Ebola has been endemic in humans over long periods of time, possibly across generations, and that such evidence has been repeatedly ignored in a rush to blame bats.

 

In truth, bats have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with humans. In Austin, Texas, the spectacular evening emergence of 1.5 million bats has become a world-famous tourist attraction, and no one has been harmed. Dire warnings of disease from bats come from those who profit from fear. For anyone who simply doesn’t attempt to handle bats, the odds of contracting a disease from one are extremely remote!

 

Children need to learn to appreciate, value, and live safely with nature, not fear it. 

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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.
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Merlin Tuttle Bat Flash

Response to Recent PBS NOVA Program

9-20-21
Merlin Tuttle

I had mixed feelings while watching the September 15, 2021 airing of PBS’ NOVA program, Bat Superpowers: Could the source of the deadliest viruses hold the secret to a healthier and longer life? Most of the scientists interviewed clearly liked bats and wanted to aid in their protection. Nevertheless, despite the many positive things reported, for the public, the take-home message was confusing – “Bats are really cool and likable, but they are also dangerous spreaders of the world’s deadliest diseases.”

Unfortunately, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear. Rattlesnakes are widely understood to be beneficial, but they are almost universally killed when found near humans. In fact, on the mere possibility of being venomous, nearly all snakes are killed.

 

From the 1970s to the mid-80s, exaggerated media warnings claimed most bats were rabid and aggressive. And fearful Americans spent millions of dollars annually paying exterminators to kill them. In more than 60 years studying bats, I have personally documented instances in which thousands at a time were poisoned in buildings or burned alive in their caves. I have also saved millions by simply helping people put fear in perspective.

By eating a single moth, a horseshoe bat can prevent hundreds of eggs from being laid on crops.
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A Cool Story of Bats Educating People

By Merlin Tuttle
7/9/21

Inner Space Cavern, located in Georgetown, Texas, has become a bat education center thanks to cooperative tricolored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) and tour guides who love them. More than 300,000 visitors a year will have a close-up encounter with bats during their guided tour.

 

Tricolored bats can be seen year-round, often roosting within a few feet of passing visitors. Assistant Manager, Patty Perlaky, commented, “I think one of the most exciting things for people, especially the children, is to see a live bat in real life, not on TV.”

 

The cave itself has a long and fascinating history. Approximately 13,000 to 32,000 years ago it had up to five entrances, some quite large. Ancient bones and carbon dating reveal the cave was visited by saber-toothed cats, jaguars, ground sloths, spectacled bears, dire wolves, camels, and even an occasional mammoth.

Tricolored bats range from Mexico to Canada in eastern North America and are tiny, weighing just more than a U.S. quarter.
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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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Hope for Pennsylvania’s Bats – Cal Butchkoski’s Legacy

By Merlin Tuttle
6/18/21

Calvin Butchkoski wasn’t privileged to attend graduate school. In fact, he never even took a course in bat biology while earning an associate degree in wildlife technology at Penn State. Yet, he became his state’s all-time leader in bat conservation. His amazing career is a testament to the power of following one’s passion while caring for both bats and humans.

 

Unable to find employment as a biologist, he served in the Marine Corps for three years after college. Finally, in 1982, he was hired as a biology technician by the Pennsylvania Game Commission where he assisted in studies of wild turkeys, bears, and even packrats for two years. He didn’t discover his true passion until assigned to work with bat expert, Dr. John Hall.

Despite a late start and lack of formal training, mostly self-taught, Cal quickly became one of America’s foremost bat conservationists. In fact, he led Pennsylvania to become a national model. His achievements include key bat house discoveries, the establishment of America’s first citizen science bat counts, protection for the state’s most important hibernation sites in caves and mines, special training for hundreds of state and federal employees, and highly successful public education campaigns.

 

Cal led early research on the most appropriate bat house designs for Pennsylvania and helped homeowners solve nuisance problems caused by too many bats attempting to live in walls and attics. His bat house alternatives saved thousands of bats from extermination. And homeowners often became citizen scientists volunteering their help with annual emergence counts.

Cal enjoying the company of an inquisitive packrat. He is a natural-born animal lover and outdoorsman who cares about all wildlife.
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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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Bat House Warnings – A Reality Check

5/6/21
Merlin Tuttle

Observations of heat-stressed, sometimes dead bats associated with bat houses, have led to unfortunate speculation that bat houses can become ecological traps that lure bats to their death. It is true that numerous bat houses are badly built and sold with unreasonable claims and little, if any, instruction on bat needs. Vendors of such houses defraud customers and threaten the credibility of bat conservation. Both vendors and customers can benefit from education and certification. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that poorly constructed bat houses threaten bat survival. Bats are smart enough to avoid bad bat houses except when desperate from lack of alternatives.
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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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