Bat Flash! Response to Exaggerated Pandemic Threats from Nipah Virus

Author Correspondence Update
12/26/18

12/19/18 Steven Bedard response

Dear Mr. Tuttle,

“Thank you so much for your concern, and for reading the bioGraphic story about Nipah virus. I really appreciate it. I assure you that I am a strong proponent of bats and the tremendously important ecological roles they play. I also think that bats are simply amazing creatures in their many forms and functions. (When you have time, please take a look at bioGraphic‘s other bat stories as evidence of that appreciation: Glimmers in the DarkBattling DiseaseBat Ballet, and Agave Whisperers.)”

He went on to explain it is never his intention to vilify or advocate killing of bats and hopes he is being clear.

 

12/20/18 Merlin response

Dear Steven,

“I do not doubt your concern for bats or your good intentions. As I’ve commented, most of your article was just fine. My complaint lies in labeling bats to be the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals. Our background experiences are apparently strikingly different. Mine regarding the impact of public fear have been summarized recently. I’d be delighted to learn more about whatever experiences led you to your apparently differing concerns. However, I’d much prefer to simply share our perspectives over the phone.”

 

12/20/18 Steven Bedard response

Dear Merlin,

“Thank you for your reply. I look forward to the opportunity to speak with you. I first heard of your research when I was an undergrad studying zoology and ecology at Colorado State in the late 80’s, so it would be an honor to “meet” by phone.”

He further notes that he extensively interviewed disease experts and explains, “You will see in the article that I chose my words very carefully. I did not say that ‘bats are the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals.’ Humans hold that dubious distinction. What I wrote is that, ‘Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.’ That statement is most certainly true, according to my sources, as well as published research such as this Nature paper published in June 2017.

He also noted, “Some of your followers have expressed concern that if people in Bangladesh understand where the virus is coming from that they will begin to persecute bats.”

[Merlin’s thoughts—That is a serious misunderstanding. Scientists and conservationists have a responsibility to inform the public of disease sources, locations, and how to avoid them. We also must condemn sensational speculation and exaggeration, either of which can seriously harm both public health and bats.]

 

12/21/18 Merlin response

Dear Steven,

As per your suggestion, I’ve read your recent stories from bioGraphic and congratulate you on some very fine promotion of bat values. In fact, your “Glimmers in the Dark” article is the best I’ve seen on WNS. Given your clear concern for bats, I’m especially looking forward to speaking with you by phone when you return early in the New Year. When ready, simply suggest a time and phone number, and I’ll be happy to call.

Attached photo

We’ve likely had rather different experiences on the impact of exaggerated disease fears. Unlike you, I’ve had the misfortune of repeatedly seeing the results first hand.

During my early research in Tennessee, I met cave owners who burned many thousands of endangered gray bats by lighting kerosene in their roosts due to exaggerated rabies warnings. In Mexico, I took the attached photo of a few of the estimated 250,000 skeletons of insect-eating bats we found on reopening a roost where a fearful owner had sealed the bats inside. And, while photographing bats for my 2014 National Geographic article, I found a major bat cave recently sealed (with the bats inside) due to disease fears in a Cuban national park. In my experience, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear. In fact, the free-tailed bat colony speculated to have been the source of the 2014 Ebola outbreak was burned in its roost.

Seeing how well intended you are, I hope you will read my 2017 report on fear-motivated bat killing and its impact on conservation. I am quite familiar with the Nature paper reporting that bats harbor a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than any other mammal group and look forward to discussing it with you.

[Note that Merlin has rebutted the aforementioned Nature article, read his response HERE.]

 

Original Response
By Merlin Tuttle
12/19/18

Steven Bedard’s article, “The Reservoir,” in the December 12 issue of bioGraphic contains many important points, and the accompanying photography by A.M. Ahad is outstanding. Nevertheless, the subtitle is exaggerated speculation. The claim that a bat-borne virus in Bangladesh is poised to become the next pandemic is no more than a long-shot guess.

 

Neither historic precedent nor credible science support the statement that “Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.” Bats have an outstanding record of not transmitting disease to humans, though they are poorly understood and widely feared. They are the easiest mammals to quickly sample, so virus hunters disproportionately focus on bats, of course finding more viruses in them because that is where they are looking!

An adult male Greater short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx) robbing sweet coconut palm nectar water from a sugar maker’s collecting can in a coconut palm in Thailand. Flowering stalks are tied together and cut so that nectar-producing sap can be harvested. It is later cooked to make a delicious sugar. When not stealing sugar water, these bats are outstanding seed dispersers and pollinators.

 

Unfortunately, speculating possible linkages between bats and rare, but scary viruses has created a perfect storm of grant-getting success and media coverage. Resulting biases can impede public health progress and lead to public intolerance of bats that are ecologically and economically essential. (1) (2)

 

Predicting the source of the next pandemic is extremely complicated, costly and risks the reputations of scientists who claim such ability. Funding priorities should focus on prompt surveillance,not prediction. (3)

 

Nipah, like other so-called “emerging viruses,” is ancient. As reported in Bedard’s article, it likely has been infecting humans for hundreds of years, unrecognized due to its rarity. Nevertheless, as the human population expands beyond sustainability, poverty, stress, and the conditions favorable to pandemics will make major outbreaks virtually inevitable, as stated. But it’s anybody’s guess where they will come from. Focusing too narrowly on bats may be impeding progress. Unsustainable growth in human populations is the real problem, one which few are willing to address.

Education regarding the risks of drinking raw palm juice is commendable. Perhaps the next step should be family planning. Nature has two remedies for overpopulation, pandemics and famine. Studies of rare diseases in bats will prevent neither.

 

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to bioGraphic editors and author to politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate exaggerated speculation that creates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article in order for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!

 

Bibliography

  1. Tuttle, Merlin. In Defense of Bats: Issues in Science and Technology www.merlintuttle.org. [Online] 2017. https://www.merlintuttle.org/resources/publication-defense-bats/.
  2. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Tuttle, Merlin. 1, s.l. : Journal of Bat Research & Conservation, 2017, Vol. 10.
  3. Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction. Edward C. Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian G. Andersen. s.l. : Nature, June 7, 2018.

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Young Conservationist Makes a Difference

Young Conservationist Makes a Difference
12/6/18

Anyll Markevich is a young man with a mission. He writes to Merlin, “I became interested in bats thanks to your book, The Secret Lives of Bats. It is one of my favorite books, and I have recommended it to more people than I can count! I have always known bats were cool, but not to the extent I discovered in your book. I want to be a wildlife biologist or ethologist when I grow up, so your book easily fascinated me.”

 

Anyll is far more than just interested. He’s also busily helping bats. He has written letters to editors in response to our Bat Flashes but wanted to do more. Using photos from our photo gallery, he designed his own bat brochures which he handed out to people at a local pedestrian mall. However, people were preoccupied with shopping and didn’t seem too interested.

 

He then emailed Merlin for advice on how to build bat houses that would best accommodate bat needs in the mountain climate of Colorado. He built nine, keeping one for himself, and sold seven to raise funds he donated to MTBC to help bats. But, being a very inventive 14-year-old, he passed his $100 gift through his father, who’s company matched his funds dollar for dollar through American Online Giving Foundation.

 

Lacking an ideal location for his bat house, he had to mount it a bit low, late in 2016. By the next summer, he found his first occupant. This year, Anyll and his mom noticed several bats flying around their yard for the first time. He checked his bat house and counted up to five. They’ve now left for winter, but he’s optimistic that he has the beginning of a colony. He’ll soon contact his customers, each of whom received instructions and one of his brochures. He’s hoping to hear of further success.

 

In his most recent communication, Anyll reported, “There is an exciting new development! Our local library (Boulder Public Library) wants me to build a four-chamber nursery bat house.” Furthermore, he got to meet professor Rick Adams, a well-known bat researcher and fellow conservationist from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado. Rick will be consulting on placement of Anyll’s bat house, making Anyll very proud! His next objective is to convince the librarians to permit him to provide his brochures to interested library users.

 

 

 

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Merlin Tuttle Bat Flash

Bat Flash! Action Needed for Durian Pollinators at Risk

The durian is considered the king of fruits throughout Southeast Asia, but it can’t be produced, even in orchards, without bats to pollinate its night-blooming flowers. This important crop could be lost without better appreciation of the key contributions of bats and their habitat needs.

It’s time to give these bats a voice. Rimba’s media statement: Deforestation for Durian Plantations Poses Serious Long-term Risks to Industry’s Productivity and Profitability calls others to action on behalf of durian pollinators. The Star recently published an article, Durian farmers pay the price in the end, highlighting Rimba’s work, reaching more than 7 million unique visitors.

Malay Mail published another supporting article, Weighing in on bats and durians, which boasts over 3 million unique visitors not including the printed version.

The Rimba news release emphasizes the serious impact of deforestation-driven durian expansion to all relevant parties. They call on the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, the Department of Agriculture, the wider durian industry, and individual durian farmers to “think long-term and pursue good agricultural practices for growing durian that is sustainable, contributes to healthy ecosystems, and provides a future for the Malaysian durian industry and Malaysian durian lovers.”

The overall objective of their plan is to promote coordinated action worldwide to safeguard wild and managed pollinators and promote the sustainable use of pollination services, which are vital to both ecosystems and agriculture. We are delighted to see Rimba’s efforts on behalf of bats and the economies they support getting this well deserved attention. Let’s use our voices to amplify the message!

 

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to The Star and Malay Mail editors to thank them for sharing this important reporting in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I greatly appreciate your support of bats and protection of sustainable durian production.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article in order for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!

 

A cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea) pollinating durian flowers. Durian fruits sell for billions of dollars annually in SE Asia, but flowers must be pollinated by bats in order to set fruit. Cave nectar bats and their larger flying fox relatives are its primary pollinators. These bats traditionally formed large colonies in caves but are in alarming decline in most areas, often overharvested for human consumption or killed during careless limestone extraction. This, combined with deforestation, poses a direct threat to durian production, as well as to a variety of other important products.

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Batman Returns

Last week, Merlin returned to his favorite institution of science, the Milwaukee Public Museum, where he spent his first 11 years as a young scientist (1974-86). He served as Curator of Mammals, with outstanding freedom to study and photograph bats, often funded and assisted by museum donors and volunteers, especially Verne and Marion Read and their family. Merlin resigned his position there in 1986 in order to devote full-time to the conservation of bats. He last spoke there some 15 years ago, but was still remembered and welcomed “home” by an extra large and enthusiastic audience despite having to compete with an important Green Bay Packers football game. Anyone who knows Wisconsin is aware that competing against the Packers is never easy!

Merlin’s much loved and never-to-be-forgotten Milwaukee mentors, Verne and Marion Read making friends with flying foxes in Australia.

His talk, titled The Incredible World of Bats, was a part of the museum’s Science on Tap Speaker Series, introduced by Mitch Teich, Executive Producer and Co-host of WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio’s “Lake Effect” program, who also interviewed Merlin on the show.

Merlin dedicated his talk to the  memory of Verne and Marion Read, who funded and participated in many of his earliest research and conservation initiatives, and continued to support his conservation efforts for decades even after his departure from Milwaukee. We especially enjoyed the generous hospitaltiy of our Milwaukee hosts, Ross and Mary Read, who along with brothers, Sandy and Tom, continue to provide much appreciated support for MTBC.

The museum takes great pride in its large, open-air dioramas that integrate natural history and anthropology. In fact, the world’s first diorama is still on display.

 

A gentle reminder of why Merlin prefered to spend winters studying bats in tropical climates.

 

Enjoying the museum’s butterfly garden!

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48th NASBR in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

This was Merlin’s 48th and Teresa Nichta’s 1st NASBR.

The 48th Annual North American Symposium on Bat Research conference was held in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico October 24-27. Hurricane Willa threatened but failed to dampen the enthusiasm of attendees who ended up enjoying perfect weather in a beautiful location. Our hosts Jorge Ortega and Rodrigo Medellin did a great job, and we were very favorably impressed with the outstanding conservation orientation of Mexican colleagues. Mexico’s students had an unusual opportunity to present their projects, ranging from bat pest control in walnut orchards to seed dispersal and the pollination of agaves from which all tequila is derived. Additional areas of conservation interest involved impacts of wind turbines, management of white-nose syndrome, and protection of roosts.

Rodrigo Medellin welcoming colleagues to the 48th meeting of the North American Symposium on Bat Research.

Many attendees were delighted to see Merlin and meet Teresa and share insights on the needs of bats. Based on his 60 years of field experience, Merlin has become increasingly concerned to see so many of today’s remaining bats living in marginal, sometimes barely survivable conditions, especially in caves. These unfortunate circumstances easily can be misinterpreted as what bats need, leading to inappropriate conservation measures. He was encouraged to see rapidly growing awareness of the futility of stopping or curing white-nose syndrome, with increasing focus on protection of survivors from disturbance at roosts. Where bats were protected from disturbance, signs of stabilization and recovery were reported.

Danielle Cordani, Vice President of the newly formed Bat Association at Texas State University, discussing her poster on bats at wind turbines with Merlin while Association President, Jacob Rogers, listens.
Teresa enjoying hotel flowers while Shahroukh Mistry, Associate Program Director, greets Merlin in background.
Canadian, Melissa Donnelly, explains her poster on Cuban bats.
Co-host, Rodrigo Medellin, shows off a freshly caught free-tailed bat.
Participants engaged in lively discussion at the annual Diversity in Science Breakfast.
Rodrigo leading strategic planning discussion, setting research priorities for lessor long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) in Mexico.
Dia de los muertos, Day of the Dead, celebration of the world’s extinct bats, prepared by Canadian, Charles Francis. This multi-day event in Mexico is a national holiday focused on remembering and honoring friends and family who have died.
Merlin congratulating Rodrigo on his outstanding conservation leadership in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

 

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So Many Birds…and Bats!

The keynote speaker for the 72nd Cape May Fall Festival was not a birder this year, but batman Merlin! His talk was on the evening of October 20, 2018 in the Grand Hotel with the theme The Incredible World of Bats. It seems as though birders are enthusiastic about bats as well. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with many giving up birding the following morning to attend his bat workshop. Participants had opportunities to ask questions and learn more about threats to bats and how to help them. We made many new friends for ourselves and bats. David Lapuma, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory remarked, “We pride ourselves in attracting the best speakers for our evening presentations, but this year was over the top.”  We thank David and New Jersey Audubon for the opportunity!

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PechaKucha with Batman

PechaKucha [ or ペチャクチャ translated as “chit-chat”] is a series of 6-minute talks from presenters in the creative industry including artists, musicians, architects, filmmakers, writers, entrepreneurs, and local personalities. Each presenter showed 20 images, each lasting for just 20 seconds. PechaKucha events foster the art of concise presentations.  This year’s PechaKucha Night Austin #32 was held in Austin on October 11, 2018. Merlin was honored to be invited by Austinites DJ Stout and Lana McGilvray, the hosts of PK ATX.
The following ten speakers each had 6 minutes to promote a subject in their area of expertise. Merlin, of course, promoted bats with emphasis on those in Austin and had an outstanding response. Watch his presentation!
  1. Herman Dyal – Graphic Designer/Architect
  2. Gretchen Harries Graham – Educator
  3. Dave McClinton – Graphic Designer/Artist
  4. Refugee Is Not My Name (Aaron Weiss, Jess Archer and Ashley St. Clair) – Art Collaborators
  5. Brian Beattie – Musician/Producer
  6. Dale Whistler – Artist/Sculptor
  7. Sarah N. Evans – Activist
  8. Randal Ford – Photographer
  9. Merlin Tuttle – Batman
  10. Mélat Kassa – Musician
Check out those bats! Beautiful poster made by Pentagram design firm.

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Collaboration to Improve Housing for Bats

9/20/18

Harrison (standing) and Christopher showing off their new BatBnB houses.

For the past 18 months Merlin has been assisting Harrison Broadhurst and Christopher Rannefors in creating a line of designer bat houses, attractive to both home owners and bats. Their curving architecture isn’t, just pleasing to the eye. At least theoretically, it may increase the area available for roosting, since most bats appear to prefer to line up with faces exposed to the outside air, not to another’s posterior, quite understandable!

The new houses are constructed of kiln-dried, sustainably sourced, three-quarter-inch western red cedar, with each piece dovetailed and caulked, thus minimizing leakage. Roosting chambers are extra tall (20-26 inches) and vented to ensure thermal gradients preferred by bats. All landing and roosting surfaces provide one-eighth-inch-deep cross cuts at half-inch intervals, ensuring maximum footholds for young bats. By avoiding plywood, the possibility of early deterioration and potential off-gassing are finally eliminated. Furthermore, treatment with Thompson’s WaterSeal Semi Transparent Stain & Sealer will additionally protect against warping.  BatBnBs come with complete instructions and are easy to mount.

We’re proud to be a part of Harrison and Chris’ efforts on behalf of bats and a safer environment. They’ve been featured in dozens of leading publications and have even appeared on several television shows. You can learn more about them and obtain your own BatBnB by visiting their online shop. By using the code MERLIN when ordering you will be given a 10% discount, and the company will donate to MTBC an additional 5% of all orders using this code. Feel free to share this discount and BatBnB’s website with friends and let us know about your progress. By purchasing a BatBnB, you can reduce the threat of harmful pesticides in your neighborhood and help MTBC educate the world about these invaluable neighbors.

 

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Partnership for Bat Conservation and Management Training

9/19/18
By Merlin Tuttle

John Chenger and Julie Zeyzus interviewing Merlin for training video on bat cave management.

In early August, we accepted a partnership invitation to develop a series of bat conservation and management training videos. Though growing numbers of biologists are studying bats, few have the breadth of experience essential to meet their widely varying conservation needs. Each species has unique requirements. In order to better share my nearly 60 years of personal experience, John Chenger founder of Bat Conservation and Management, and Janet Tyburec founder of Bat Survey Solutions, invited me to collaborate. They are providing video shooting and editing, featuring my narration and illustrations.

Teresa Nichta (left) and Julie Zeyzus shooting slow motion video of Brazilian free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) emergence.

 

 

 

Four programs are now being edited. The first, tentatively titled “Win Friends, not Battles,” explains key approaches that have most effectively won long-term cooperation. The second features the worldwide importance of bats. The third addresses greatly exaggerated disease claims, and the fourth deals with assessing cave suitability for bats and special long-term management needs.

Bad gate that caused abandonment by a large colony of cave myotis (Myotis velifer). New owners removed the gate, and the bats are now gradually returning.

Under John’s guidance, we began field shooting on August 15, greatly aided by Teresa Nichta and John’s associate, Julie Zeyzus. For the next 10 days there was little time for sleep or even eating. On my birthday, we spent seven hours filming underground, a great antidote for thinking of getting old!

Measuring roost stains left by a formerly large colony of cave myotis in a Texas cave. Stains can last for centuries, providing an invaluable estimate of past colony size.

 

Illustrating the need for such education, one of the caves we visited in a protected nature reserve, had lost its entire colony of tens of thousands of cave myotis when fire protection permitted entrance blockage by vegetation. Another cave, also well protected by its owner, had overgrowth of an invasive, introduced plant that could have prevented restoration of a formerly large colony. It only took minutes to eliminate the threat.

 

 

 

 

Videoing Brazilian free-tailed bats close-up in crevices between box beams.
Explaining how bat-friendly bridge designs have aided Texas farmers.
Sunset emergence of free-tailed bats.

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Counting Free-tailed Bats in Bridges

9/10/18
By Merlin Tuttle

Merlin inspects Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) moments after removing them from their bridge crevice roost for counting.

For many years we’ve wondered just how many Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) could cram into a single 18-inch-deep bridge crevice. Accurate counts of large colonies are difficult no matter how they’re made. However, when estimating bridge colonies, it would help if we knew the number, using an average horizontal foot of crevice.

The solution seemed easy. Two years ago, Glen Novinger, an MTBC member and I, inserted two, three-quarter-inch-thick wooden frames, each encompassing a square foot of interior space, into bridge crevices of the same width while the bats were out feeding. The idea was to later slowly remove them, forcing those roosting inside to exit into a cloth-lined bag from which we would count them.

However, the bats were full of surprises. The first night we waited patiently till half an hour after we’d seen the last ones leave—or at least that was what we thought! But when we approached to install our devices, roughly half remained inside. I couldn’t help but wonder how many emergence counts had missed those that, for whatever their reasons, didn’t emerge at sundown. (more…)

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