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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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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Comments on World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Report

The World Health Organization’s recent report on COVID-19 speculates a bat origin. However, its findings are seriously flawed and questioned by the Biden administration according to the Wall Street Journal. Former CDC Director, Robert Redfield, in his CNN interview, still believes it escaped from a lab in China. The origin clearly remains unresolved.

A review of scientific literature reveals that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has not been found in bats, and there are no reports of transmission from a bat to a human.

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Bat Flash! Help John Oliver Put Bats in Perspective

The Last Week Tonight with John Oliver February 15th episode shared misguided speculations about bats. Here is Merlin’s public letter to John Oliver. We don’t have his email address, so we’re counting on you to help get his attention. No shade, John, we understand the topic is muddy. We simply want the opportunity to set the record straight!

Contact information and action steps are listed below. You can still help!

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USA Today Bat Flash Follow-up

Many thanks to all who responded to last week’s Bat FlashWe were copied on emails and are delighted to see your politely and positively framed responses. 

MTBC’s objective is to encourage the authors, editors and decision makers to refocus attention to balanced reporting of scientifically sound facts. We offer our resources and, with the help of our members, these responses have often led to collaborations, op-eds or follow up publications that put the truth in perspective. Misunderstandings are common and often shared by well intended writers. Unfortunately speculation gets shared as fact, so much so that it becomes difficult to see the truth.

Many of you received identical replies from the authors, as shown below. Merlin responded on February 1, 2021 to both USA Today authors, Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise, as follows:

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Bat Flash! Where Did COVID-19 Really Come From?

01/28/21

By Merlin Tuttle

USA Today’s January 17 story, Where did Covid-19 come from? leads with the following statement “The coronavirus that conquered the world came from a thumb-sized bat tucked inside a remote Chinese cave. Of this much, scientists are convinced.”

Deep in the story, they quote virologist John Connor at Boston University, saying ‘It looks like it’s a bat-derived virus, and there’s a big question mark after that.’ Fellow virologist, Charles Chiu, an expert in viral genomics at the University of California—San Francisco, is additionally quoted as saying ‘It may also have emerged from any setting in which people come into contact with animals, including farms, pets or zoos.’

Clearly, all scientists are not convinced that this virus came from bats, not even those interviewed for this story. The disproportionate focus on bats as the source of the COVID-19 pandemic is based on poorly supported speculation that harms conservation efforts worldwide.

Intermediate Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus affinis)

One of the most cited studies accuses bats of hosting more viruses than other mammals. Yet, the authors of this study surveyed twice as many bats as all other mammals combined. More inclusive research suggests that bats do not harbor more viruses than other animals.

New viruses can be found wherever we look, so it is not surprising to find more in the animals that are predominately searched. The claim that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, shares 96% of its genetic material with a coronavirus found in a horseshoe bat is meaningless. We ourselves are 96% genetically similar to chimpanzees which we easily recognize as non-human.

Current biases threaten the survival of bats that have undisputed value and are already in alarming decline. They also harm science credibility and misdirect the search for zoonotic reservoirs by focusing disproportionately on bats. Despite relentless searching and endless speculation, there is no documentation that SARS-CoV-2, SARS, MERS, or Ebola viruses have been found in, or transmitted from a bat to a human.

As noted by Yong-Zhen Zhang and Edward Holmes, it is critical that coronavirus surveillance should include animals other than bats. Blaming bats based on one-sided searches is premature and misleading.

 TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. We invite you to politely share your opinion in your own words with the editors. You may find our resources, Give Bats a Break and Good Intentions Can Still Leave a Bad Taste, additionally helpful in composing your personal reply and discussing these topics with others. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate misleading speculation that perpetuates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article for you to have an impact.

It’s numbers that count and bats need all of you! Tell a friend about bat values and how they can help.

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Bat Flash! NatGeo’s “Virus Hunters” Spreads Groundless Claims About Bats

11/2/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

I viewed the National Geographic documentary series titled, “Virus Hunters,” with substantial disappointment. Warnings of growing reliance on bush meat and industrial farming were justified. However, coverage of wildlife too often exaggerated risks from bats. 

Bats are exceptionally easy to trap in large numbers, have few defenders, and are easily misunderstood. This makes them prime targets for scary speculation that is exceptionally lucrative in gaining media readership and unprecedentedly large grants. And unfortunately, the opinions of leading virologists who doubt that virus hunters can predict or prevent pandemics were left unmentioned.

The 2017 study that reported more viruses in bats than in other mammals sampled nearly twice as many bats as all other mammalian orders combined. Since most viruses have yet to be discovered, new ones can be found wherever we look. And because bats are an ancient group of mammals, it is not surprising that they sometimes host ancestors of modern species. 2020 study, concluding that bats harbor no more viruses than other animals, has been largely ignored.

Hundreds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) beginning their evening departure from a city park in Ivory Coast, Africa. Cities often provide the only homes safe from commercial hunters who sell them for people to eat. Despite such large numbers having lived in close association with humans throughout recorded history, they have not caused disease outbreaks. Their remarkable safety record casts grave doubt on recent speculation of their being dangerous carriers of disease.

Documented transmission of any disease from a bat to a human is exceedingly rare, and the risk is near zero for anyone who simply does not handle them. Hundreds of thousands of bats live in city parks across Africa. Yet there are no verified cases of Ebola transmission, despite huge efforts to find such an association. In fact, despite repeated assertions, there are no documented cases of Ebola, MERS, or SARS-CoV-2 viruses ever having been found in a bat, much less transmitted from a bat to a human. In truth, bats have one of the world’s finest records of living safely with humans. For example, in Austin, Texas countless thousands of visitors have safely viewed the spectacular emergences of 1.5 million free-tailed bats for decades without a single incident of disease transmission.

I have safely studied bats for more than 60 years, including publishing five articles in their defense in National Geographic. It is sad indeed to see bat survival threatened due to the same, traditionally respected, organization spreading groundless claims that bats can defecate deadly viruses by simply flying overhead. People seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear, and none are more vulnerable than bats. Please, in your future coverage of Virus Hunters, put bat risks and benefits in perspective. The irresponsible spreading of falsehoods needs to stop.

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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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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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