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.

Reported Restrictions 

Most countries are attempting to follow IUCN guidelines, but interpretations vary widely. Some require no restrictions, while others prohibit any bat work that includes close association with bats. In practice, reported restrictions often mean a complete cessation of research, training workshops, and/or rehabilitation.

 

Opinions 

  • 66% reported negative effects on their research, 32% very negative.
  • 67% reported negative effects on conservation, 30% very negative.
  • 65% reported negative effects on the perception of bats, 37% very negative.
  • 54% reported increased difficulty in obtaining research or education permits.
  • 61% reported decreased data collection.
  • 76% reported reduced training workshop opportunities. 
  • 72% reported reduced public education.
  • 88% reported increased mixed messaging to the public.
  • 65% reported increased public fear of bats.
  • 51% reported increased bat eradication attempts.
  • 85% believed that restrictions are less than fully effective, 15% very effective.

Comments From Responders

Responders from several U.S. states reported increased intolerance of bats roosting in buildings, and some even cited euthanization of non-listed species accidentally captured during field studies. We found a wide range of opinions over the effectiveness of current restrictions, but most expressed confidence in the potential for safely returning to work. 

 

There was also widespread frustration with inconsistent interpretations of what are “essential” versus “non-essential” activities and restrictions preventing work with non-listed species. Modifications to IUCN guidelines were announced on July 2, 2021. They included new instructions on assessing risk, clearly attempting to facilitate a return to work. Nevertheless, responders continued to report problems with government agencies due to subjective, often overly conservative, permitting decisions that hamper progress.

 

Interpreting Results

Survey responses revealed several unintended consequences of restrictions. Respondents reported a sharp decrease in conservation-relevant research, public education, and key training workshops for professionals, at a time when they are most needed. North Americans reported the most stringently enforced restrictions – in part due to continued enforcement of failed efforts to stop the advance of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome (WNS). The following quotes are representative of the most frequently written responses.

 

“With the potential listing of bat species due to the impact of WNS, biologists in the state are falling behind on inventory and monitoring. This will negatively impact the baseline data available if/when species are added to the ESA [Endangered Species Act]. Large scale bat capture efforts, including training and workshops, within Nevada have been cancelled for 2020 and 2021.”

Anonymous, Wildlife Biologist, NV, USA

 

“I’ve observed the following: (1) increased use of acoustics as a sole survey method to document bat presence, when for many species identification can only be done with a bat in the hand; (2) decreased hands-on training opportunities needed for furthering on-going bat survey objectives; and (3) increased animosity towards permitting agencies and departments of health due to their seemingly capricious decisions that single-out researchers and educators as possible vectors of COVID transmission to bats while ignoring the more expansive numbers of the general public who interact with bats on a daily basis.”

Janet Tyburec, Workshop Trainer & Environmental Consultant, AZ, USA

 

Eighty-five percent of respondents doubted that restrictions on professional bat workers could be fully effective in preventing COVID exposures from humans to bats. However, a wide range of opinions were reported. 

 

“I would like to see a reinstatement of all permits for research, inventory, and monitoring activities. While I personally don’t think it is necessary, I would be amenable to adding additional levels of PPE, such as masks and vaccinations, if it meant being able to resume bat work.”

Anonymous, Government Agency, USA

 

“Handling by vaccinated people with sensible restrictions, such as masks, gloves, and avoiding bat work when sick, should be required. If these conditions are met, bat handling should not be restricted.”

Bryan Hamilton, Government Agency, CA, USA

 

“Now we have one set of rules for researchers (the ones likely to take all precautions) and no rules for the public. It makes no sense.”

Todd Stefanic, Government Agency, ID, USA

 

An unprecedented resurgence of public intolerance of bats was reported. Some U.S. states were even identified as requiring extermination of bat colonies living in buildings. Historically, people who fear bats have killed thousands, even millions, in single incidents.1,2 Seventy-one percent of respondents shared concerns regarding the impact of mixed messaging as a threat to bat conservation. Visual images of researchers donning full PPE when approaching bats risk reversing decades of educational progress in overcoming irrational fear of bats as vectors for disease.

 

“Handling bats with PPE in front of local communities, even if meant to protect the bat, can trigger fear and misconceptions of bats.”

Natalie Weber, Wildlife Biologist, Germany

 

A recent survey conducted by Tigga Kingston examined community perceptions of bats since COVID-19. The results revealed strikingly similar themes. Participants from across 39 countries overwhelmingly cited “Fieldwork and Monitoring Restrictions” as the greatest negative impacts, closely followed by “Misinformation” and “Persecution [of bats]”.Fear of bats was reported to be growing, despite increased efforts to combat negative messaging and misinformation. Participants submitted no solutions on how to address persecution, clearly highlighting the need to put fears in perspective.

 

In our opinion, bats will continue to suffer from growing public fear for as long as they are defended, only because they are essential, while still being presented as uniquely dangerous sources of disease. When communicating with the general public, special efforts should be made to minimize any implication of bats being dangerous sources of disease and to clarify that PPE is needed to protect against human transmission of COVID-19.

 

Questions to Consider

1.      Can we prevent transmission of COVID to wildlife?

Humans appear able to transmit COVID to a wide variety of other mammals, from mice to deer, and even domestic cats and livestock, with little harm.4,5 COVID antibodies were recently discovered in 40% of white-tailed deer across four U.S. states. As with other non-primate mammals, they showed few, if any, signs of illness, and may already be spreading it to other species.6 Hunters were simply advised to follow normal procedures for safe processing and were quickly reassured that “Based on the available information, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low.”7

 

In sharp contrast, we are often warned of grave risks of COVID transmission either to or from bats. The apparent bias is reminiscent of rabies warnings that focused disproportionately on bats in the 1970s and 80s, making bat conservation nearly impossible.1,2

 

2.         Why are COVID restrictions uniquely focused on bat workers when rapid spread among other wildlife already appears to be beyond our control?

We can’t control the public’s interactions with bats. Thousands of people worldwide encounter bats that enter their homes, and additional thousands contact them while exploring caves. Countless more hunt bats for food or medicinal use.1 Most are not even aware of restrictions applied to professional bat workers. Their numbers dwarf those of professional bat workers. This raises another important question:

 

3.         Can wildlife exposure to COVID be prevented, and is the apparently low potential for success worth the cost?

References

  1. Tuttle, M. D. Threats to bats and educational challenges in Bat Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation 363–391 (2013). doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-7397-8_18.
  2. Tuttle, M. D. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Journal of Bat Research & Conservation 10, (2017).
  3. Rutrough, A., Kingston, T. & Tsang, S. M. Scientific perceptions of bat conservation and COVID-19: Insights from the International Berlin Bat Meeting 2021. GBatNet https://gbatnet.blogspot.com/2021/10/scientific-perceptions-of-bat.html (2021).
  4. Cohen, J. The hunt for SARS-CoV-2’s ancestors heats up. Science 373, 1076–1077 (2021).
  5. Fagre, A. et al. SARS-CoV-2 infection, neuropathogenesis and transmission among deer mice: Implications for spillback to New World rodents. PLOS Pathogens 17, e1009585 (2021).
  6. Chandler, J. C. et al. SARS-CoV-2 exposure in wild white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). bioRxiv 2021.07.29.454326 (2021) doi:10.1101/2021.07.29.454326.
  7. Murray, J. White-tailed deer can get COVID. Here’s what hunters need to know. Press Connects https://www.pressconnects.com/story/news/local/2021/09/28/white-tail-deer-covid-positive-new-york-hunters-safely-eat-meat/5815817001/ (2021).

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Severe Weather Takes Heavy Toll in Texas

By Merlin Tuttle
3/2/21

Given overall warming trends, we weren’t surprised to see some 70 to 80° F days in January and February of 2021. But that hardly tells the full story!

Beginning on February 10th, historically low temperatures were recorded across Texas. For eight consecutive days (February 10–18), the temperature hovered between 37° and 9° F with six inches of snow on the ground in Austin, Texas. The first reasonable feeding opportunity for bats likely didn’t occur before the 21st.

The last similar event occurred 32 years ago in 1989. In a 9-day period (December 16–24) the daily temperature ranged from 51 to 4° F but remained below freezing for only two days versus seven in 2021. Fewer people were concerned in those days, but at least hundreds of killed bats were reported.

Brazilian free-tailed bats about to emerge from their day roost in a bridge crevice in Austin, Texas.
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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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A Model Example of Bat Recovery Potential

By Merlin Tuttle
9/25/19

Long Cave, in Kentucky, like many others, has a long history of human occupation with little record of prior use by bats. It was mined for saltpeter, a key ingredient of gun powder, during the war of 1812 and was subject to commercial tourism, probably beginning at about the turn of the century, ending by the 1930s.

 

Huge passages trapped cold air and remained cool year-round, offering major opportunities for bat hibernation. Roost stains from past bat use were widespread, and the cave clearly had potential to shelter millions. As recently as 1947 some 50,000 bats, presumed to be largely the now endangered Indiana myotis (Myotis sodalis), continued to return in winter. Nevertheless, entrance barriers built to exclude non-paying tourists, increasingly restricted air flow, eventually culminating in a concrete wall and a nearly solid door.

The bat population plummeted, leaving only roost stains as evidence of extraordinary past use. By the time that Mammoth Cave National Park was established in 1941, few bats could be found in the park’s caves, and those that remained weren’t yet recognized as either important or endangered.

By the early 1990s, as characteristic bat roost stains began to be recognized, the huge historic importance of several of the park’s caves began to be suspected. Cave Resource Management Specialist and Research Coordinator, Rick Olson, invited me and several colleagues to lead an investigation. We quickly found unmistakable evidence, of past use by at least 9-13 million bats, perhaps more than twice that many, mostly endangered gray (Myotis grisescens) and Indiana myotis.

Rick Toomey and Merlin Tuttle waiting for group to enter bat-friendly gate at Long Cave.
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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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Success in Panama!

During both weeks of our workshops, we encountered periodic rain showers, keeping the normally hot, dry-season temperatures far more comfortable than anticipated. The downside was that we had poor netting results on three nights during the second week. We shared the forest with some interesting characters, such as a black jaguar, which fortunately left us alone, though it likely observed our activities. This one was photographed on a trail camera near one of our netting sites.

 

We set up a triple-high mist net almost every night, both weeks.

Departing to net bats over the nearby river. Daniel Hargreaves is carrying the triple-high net rig in the red bag. His team of skilled instructors from the U.K., Steve and Fiona Parker and Daniel Whitby, were superb.

(more…)

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More Bats from Cocobolo

During our two-week stay in Panama’s Cocobolo Nature Reserve, we recorded more than 600 bats of 53 species, more than half the total number known for the entire country. Additional species were netted nearly every night, including two on our final evening. Over our two-weeks of workshops, common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) and greater fishing bats (Noctilio leporinus) were participant favorites, though an incredible variety of fruit-, nectar-, and insect-eating species were seen. The hardiest of our group members often worked till dawn, bringing in a steady stream of species for portrait photos, especially during the first week. By the second week much more time was devoted to training bats to come on call, especially to locations where Merlin could photograph natural behavior, such as catching katydids.

Merlin Tuttle training a hairy big-eared bat (Micronycteris hirsuta) to come on call to a leaf to catch katydids (its natural prey) in front of bright video lights needed for high speed video shooting.

(more…)

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Some non-bat Cocobolo critters

We found dozens of creatures while out netting for bats, and even at base camp. We don’t have species names for all of them but here’s a small collection of some of Cocobolo’s non-bat critters…

 

Jen Shallman with a Mussurana snake (Clelia clelia) Photo: Los Naturalistas
Gladiator tree frogs (Hypsiboas rosenbergiPhoto: Los Naturalistas
Eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegeliiPhoto: Los Naturalistas
Brown blunt-headed vine snake (Imantodes cenchoaPhoto: Los Naturalistas
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Bullet ants Photo by Daniel Whitby
Kind toad Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Whip scorpion Photo by Daniel Whitby
Photo by Daniel Whitby
Coral snake (Mircrurus clarkii), this was the first one of this species ever seen on Cocobolo Nature Reserve! So many discoveries to be made here.

 

 

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MTBC’s Bat Adventures continue: Panama – Week 2!

The new group arrived successfully and with bells on for Week 2.

We have three bats in training. Merlin trained a hairy big-eared bat (Micronycteris hirsuta) for photography. Within 15 minutes it was flying to his hand on call, rewarded with meal worms. Janell Cannon, the famous author of  Stella Luna, trained a white-throated round-eared bat (Lophostoma silvicolum) to eat from her hand. Her bat has a very calm temperament. Alexis and Amy trained a Niceforo’s big-eared bat (Trinycteris nicefori) for photography, a very sweet and eager gal.

Merlin guiding Janell in training the (Lophostoma silvicoluma) in a small tent provided for this purpose.
Merlin guiding Janell’s bat training.
Merlin guiding Alexis in training a (Trinycteris nicefori).

(more…)

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