Today’s issue of TheScientist contains another outstanding example of how MTBC is making a unique, but critical difference for bats. This article [by Merlin Tuttle] was originally submitted as an email to the editor. On January 13, I explained the harm done by biased portrayal of bats. The editor promptly requested permission to publish my communication as an op-ed. We encourage our members to share it broadly. Nothing can threaten bats more than the fear and intolerance created by misleading disease stories.
Speculation linking bats to scary diseases has become lucrative, both in generating research grants and media readership. As historically documented, it can have devastating impact in fostering intolerance and even massive bat eradication. It also threatens the credibility of scientists and publishers and diverts critical public health funding from far higher priorities.
Many authors and publishers of such counterproductive speculation are well intended, just misinformed. If kindly approached with sound documentation of the harm being done, they are appreciative and can be extremely helpful as we have repeatedly demonstrated.
Lena Sun’s article, “On a Bat’s Wing and a Prayer,” in the December 13, 2018 edition of The Washington Post, though well intended, contains misinformation that can threaten both conservation and public health. It leads with two false premises: bats are “some of the most dangerous animals in the world” and the rare Marburg virus is an important threat to world health. (1)
This basic discovery was covered by several news media, each with a slightly different slant. We responded to this one because it contained the worst misrepresentations. It was the only one seen that claimed bats to be “some of the most dangerous animals in the world” in addition to exaggerating the seriousness of its threat to world health.
Since its discovery in 1967, Marburg virus has caused a dozen outbreaks, killing fewer than 400 people. All the so-called “emerging diseases” speculated to be associated with bats worldwide, have killed fewer than 20,000 people in the past 40 years.
By comparison, HIV from chimpanzees has killed more than 39 million people,(2) yet these more popular animals consistently escape being labeled as dangerous. Among other viral killers in Africa, the World Health Organization reports more than 70,000 children die annually from vaccine-preventable roto virus infections.(3) It also warns of geometric growth in obesity, that according to the National Institutes of Health causes 300,000 preventable deaths annually in the U.S. alone.(4) And by extremely conservative estimate, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 23,000 Americans die annually from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.(5)
So why are we focusing limited public health resources disproportionately on the rarest threats? And why are rare risks from bats often exaggerated? The answers are simple. Bats are little known, widely feared, easy to sample, and have few defenders. Also, new viruses can be found wherever we look. These combined facts make bats uniquely vulnerable to a seemingly perfect storm. Speculation linking them to equally little known, but scary viruses has proven extremely lucrative in gaining unprecedentedly large grants and media readership, while diverting limited public health funds from far higher priorities.(6)(7)
Historically, bats have one of our planet’s finest track records of living safely with humans. Millions live in cities from America to Africa, Asia, and Australia, and have not caused even one of the world’s great pandemics. Diseases associated with bats are easily avoidable, mostly by simply not handling them.(7) Until more is known about Marburg, African caves where the virus may exist should be avoided.
For those visiting Africa, risks from mosquito-transmitted malaria or dog-transmitted rabies are orders of magnitude higher than those from any of the so-called “emerging,” but ancient, diseases speculated to be associated with bats. Our real fears should focus on preventing further loss of these already alarmingly declining, but ecologically and economically essential animals.(7)
“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 Dark, Battling Disease, Bat 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
“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
“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
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.
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 (more…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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…)
Building bat roosts into highway bridges in farmlands can benefit farmers at little or no cost to taxpayers. Mark Bloschock, a supervising bridge design engineer at the Texas Department of Transportation, discovered the potential for bridges to help bats when he worked on Austin’s now famous Congress Avenue Bridge. As hundreds of thousands of bats unexpectedly moved in, he contacted me for advice. He soon discovered that, by simply making small adjustments in the spacing between box beams, large numbers of bats could be attracted where needed, and where they weren’t wanted, they could be discouraged by simply changing the spacing.
In 1998, when highway US 90 required two new bridges over Seco Creek, near D’Hanis, Texas, he wrote specifications that placed the box beams three quarters to 1.5 inches apart, hoping to attract Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) to this important agricultural area. The bats quickly moved in and soon exceeded half a million, today as many as two million.
At Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation we’re overjoyed to finally launch our membership campaign. Members at the Leadership level or above were given priority invitations to view the famous Congress Avenue Bridge bat emergence with Merlin aboard a chartered Capital Cruises boat. We all gathered at the Hyatt Hotel’s lounge for drinks (and queso) and to meet and get acquainted. The first member to sign up for the cruise was Janell Cannon, the author of the classic children’s book Stellaluna. Janell graciously signed copies of her book, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary!
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has set world records when it comes to helping bats, and that special help is paying big dividends for Texans and for countless visitors. Thanks to the enthusiastic early leadership of Supervising Bridge Engineer, Mark Bloschock and the continuing efforts of Stirling Robertson, now in charge of Strategic Projects, and John Young, an Environmental Specialist, TxDOT is taking great pride in its accomplishments.
On August 21, Stirling and John organized a special bat evening for 30 of TxDOT’s most important media and public information officers. They each received a copy of Department’s new guide to bat watching at state bridges, attended my 20-minute presentation at TxDOT headquarters, then joined me for a special Congress Avenue Bridge bat watching evening. We were delighted when we learned that Mark, who is now retired, would be able to join us.
The bats performed beautifully, and Stirling reported, “There has been overwhelming positive response to your talk and the whole event. Good stuff!” A big thank you to Stirling for making this event possible! We look forward to future collaboration and many more bats in Texas bridges.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 50 years of in-depth knowledge and experience Merlin Tuttle, renowned bat expert, educator and wildlife photographer founded MTBC with one true goal in mind; teaching the world to understand and appreciate the vital contributions bats make to human beings and the world we live in.