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:

Dear Karen and Elizabeth,

I’m replying to your responses to friends and colleagues who are deeply concerned about how Covid speculation is harming bats.

I appreciate your good intentions and understand how easy it is to be misled on the subject of bats and disease. Unlike those who promote exaggerated fear of bats, I have nothing to gain financially from sharing the truth. For decades, scaring people with misrepresented disease claims has proven extraordinarily lucrative as well as harmful to bat conservation. When I began my career in bat research, more than 60 years ago, nearly everyone in America “knew” that most bats were rabid and would attack people based on unfounded claims from public health officials. Mass eradication was common. When DDT use was made illegal, our CDC received a special exemption to distribute it for killing bats though leading scientists showed this to be highly counterproductive. We documented this in peer reviewed publications, finally convincing the EPA to ban all poisoning of bats.

But scaring people about bats continues to be so easy and lucrative as to apparently be irresistible for many in public health fields. A large part of the problem is that colonial bats are the easiest of all mammals to sample quickly in large numbers, and many people already fear them simply because we fear most what we understand least. Since few people understand bats, viruses, or genetic relationships, speculating about them in combination is especially powerful in generating sensational media headlines that sell readership and unprecedentedly large grants.

In truth, there is no credible evidence that bats harbor more diseases than other animals. However, by searching in far more bats than other animals, self-fulfilling prophecies are achieved, leading to misdirected investment in public health priorities. In fact, the odds of contracting any disease from a bat are immeasurably close to zero for anyone who simply doesn’t attempt to handle them. That truth is conveniently omitted by those who profit from public fear. I don’t deny that bats, like all animals, harbor viruses, but put in perspective, humans harbor and spread more scary diseases than bats or any other animal.

Like veterinarians, I personally am vaccinated against rabies to protect against defensive bites from the many unfamiliar animals I handle. However, I’ve never been protected against any of the so-called emerging diseases speculated to be of bat origin. And I remain healthy despite having handled hundreds of species worldwide and often been surrounded by millions at a time while working in caves.

If you would like to help both people and bats by putting risks in perspective, I would be delighted to assist you.

Best wishes,

Merlin

Merlin received the response pictured below, like many of you did, and responded on February 6, 2021, as follows:

Dear Elizabeth,

There is evidence of a horseshoe bat role in the early evolution of a SARS-like coronavirus. Because bats are an ancient group of mammals that comprise a fifth of all species, it is not surprising to find ancestral strains of modern viruses in them. Nevertheless, the two viruses (RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2) diverged 40-70years ago and are no more similar than we are to chimpanzees. The fact remains, the origin of COVID-19 is still a mystery, and failure to find an intermediate ancestor for SARS-CoV-2 is not a basis for concluding that bat-to-human transmission has occurred. Many alternative animal sources simply remain uninvestigated, and leading virologists have emphasized the need for a broader search beyond bats. Finding the true source of COVID-19 transmission to humans, not distant viral relatives, is key to future prevention.

It is important to understand how zoonotic diseases are transmitted to humans. But effective protection demands unbiased investigation. The disproportionate focus on bats is an unfortunate waste of limited resources that threatens to reverse decades of bat conservation. There is a massive under-sampling of other species. It is even possible that the virus now causing COVID-19 evolved its deadly characteristics after arrival in humans. Much more sampling of possible hosts will be required before we can conclude where it came from.

There is a long history of public health exaggeration focused on bats, and its harm to bats is undeniable. People who fear animals seldom tolerate and often kill them regardless of warnings that they are beneficial and shouldn’t be killed. I have personally documented cases in which hundreds of thousands of bats have been burned in their caves, or trapped and left to starve when their caves were sealed by needlessly fearful humans. The attached photo shows just a few of the 250,000 trapped in a single location I visited. There are also well-documented incidents in several countries due to sensational media speculation of a bat origin for COVID-19. 

Those who profit from human fear of bats rarely, if ever, mention that the odds of contracting any disease from a bat are extremely remote for people who simply don’t handle them. Without ending fear, good intentions can do more harm than good.

I urge an end to media speculation that misrepresents facts, threatening the survival of bats and diminishing confidence in science.

Best wishes,

Merlin

Picture1
This is the photo Merlin attached to his email, mentioned above. It shows the remains of just a few of the 250,000 bats trapped in a single location, where they were sealed inside their roosting tunnel by fearful humans.
Merlin then received the response pictured below, like many of you did, on February 10, 2021:

Because we’ve already provided clear documentation of expert disagreement to the author’s statements we did not respond to this email. 

It seems that Karen and Elizabeth, while well-intended, are hopelessly committed and uninterested in hearing facts that don’t align with their reporting. Yes, it’s a fact bats harbor viruses, just like humans and every other animal on the planet, but they don’t harbor more than other species.

We hope for better luck next time. Some authors and editors are willing to consider opposing science, and by sharing this exchange we can encourage polite discussion and shed light on the need for balanced reporting, especially when it comes to bats. Thanks again for speaking up for bats!

If you haven’t shared your opinion with USA Today yet, it’s never too late to use your voice on behalf of bats. Bats need friends now more than ever. We hope our resources can help you be the best bat ambassador you can be, so keep sharing the truth about bats!

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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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Improving Bat Houses in America:

Nearly 40 Years of Progress and Still Learning

9/14/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

Bat houses are outstanding tools for education. When I introduced them to Americans in 1982, my primary objective was to help people overcome fear and accept bats as valuable neighbors. That goal has been vastly exceeded. Today, hundreds of thousands of American bats live in a wide variety of bat houses.

Individuals who have carefully tested local bat preferences, and adapted accordingly, are reporting close to 90 percent occupancy. Nevertheless, there is still much to be learned. And that is why we’re initiating new collaborations.

Late last month, local member, Debbie Zent, founder of Austin Batworks, reported an impressive event. Her three-chamber nursery house had been caulked, sealed, and painted inside and out, and was mounted high on a streamside ranch building—a nearly perfect combination. But to find it overflowing with occupants just days later was surprising.

This Texas Hill Country bat house became overcrowded within days by Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis).
The house was ideally located approximately 18 feet up on a building beside a permanent creek where it receives only morning to mid-day sun.

Was this extraordinary success due to house or location quality, or were these bats simply desperate?

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Timely New Children’s Book

9/3/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

Life Upside Down

Australia’s Grey-headed flying-foxes

Leading wildlife photographer and conservationist, Doug Gimesy, has teamed up with award-winning media graphic artist, Heather Kiley, to produce an outstanding introduction to the upside-down world of grey-headed flying foxes. Through stunning photography, simple text, and eye-catching design, this book provides a timely introduction to some of the world’s most frequently misunderstood and intensely persecuted animals.

Victims of misunderstanding and mass eradication attempts, Australia’s flying foxes now survive only as tiny fractions of former numbers. Forest clearing has left them homeless and starving. Countless thousands have been killed in mass shooting campaigns, electrocution grids, and flame thrower attacks on their roosts, known as camps. Remnant survivors are now forced to live in cities where they are needlessly demonized as carriers of dreaded diseases, despite a long history of living safely with people or subjected to attempts of forced eviction with nowhere else to go. Welcomed honeybees, dogs, and especially humans are far more dangerous! Moreover, large numbers of flying foxes are essential to reforestation and the survival of much-loved animals such as koalas.

Readers of Life Upside Down will be introduced to the real world of flying foxes as safe and invaluable neighbors and learn how they can be helped. This full-color, large-format, 48-page book is available in hardcover for $19.95 at Australian Geographic or at Book Depository.  

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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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Costa Rica’s Bat-Friendly Hotel

3/11/20

By Paula Tuttle

Merlin and I recently spent an especially productive week promoting bat conservation at the Harmony Hotel in northwestern Costa Rica. Merlin’s lecture, introducing the many values of Costa Rican bats, attracted a large and enthusiastic audience that included both hotel guests and community members.

Thanks to the owner’s passionate commitment to a healthy, sustainable environment, the hotel is a wildlife oasis in the midst of the small town of Nosara. Wherever possible, a lush profusion of native vegetation has been restored or introduced, serving as a magnet for animals, from howler monkeys, coatis and margay cats to large iguanas and an impressive variety of bats.

We quickly recorded more than a dozen bat species, belonging to five families, and introduced them to appreciative staff and guests. In fact, the proximity of multiple species posed the biggest challenge to use of a bat detector. The hotel may soon attract even more bats, as it intends to put up bat houses.

We were especially encouraged to learn of all the hotel’s progress toward environmental sustainability while maintaining top quality. The staff were outstanding. The food was healthy and delicious, and we thoroughly enjoyed the two evenings spent introducing the owners’ family and friends to the diverse array of bats found in their own yard.

Merlin has prepared a program on Costa Rican bats for the hotel to share with guests and in local schools, and we look forward to further collaboration.   

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Thai Adventures Part 4: Khao Chong Pran

2/19/20

By Merlin Tuttle

For me, our trip highlight was the visit to the Khao Chong Pran Cave in Ratchaburi Province. Nearly 40 years ago Buddhist monks who owned the cave had asked my advice. Their monastery relied on bat guano fertilizer sales for support. But in 1981 production was plummeting. Of course, and the monks wanted to know why.

Merlin and Surapon reminiscing about their first visit to Khao Chong Pran Cave nearly 40 years earlier.

Before dawn the next morning, my then young field assistant and interpreter, Surapon Duangkhae, and I discovered poachers using large fish nets to capture bats at the cave entrance. They were selling them to local restaurants. We hired two of the poachers to help us document the extent of the problem, then advised the monks to hire a game warden to protect their bats.

Merlin answering game warden’s questions in 1989.
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Thai Adventures Part 3: Cave Bats

12/26/19

By Daniel Hargreaves

We arrived at sunset at the OurLand Nature Reserve in Kanchanaburi Province, our home for the next 5 days. We quickly set up a few mist nets and a harp trap and were rewarded with a brace of lesser false vampire bats (Megaderma spasma) and several cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea). Merlin took the opportunity to show the group how to train a bat. Unfortunately, the chosen bat was unusually difficult. However, just over an hour later it eagerly permitted Merlin to approach, enticing it to drink from a syringe filled with sugar water.

The next morning, we climbed 200 steps in search of roosting bats located in two caves above a monastery occupied by Buddhist shrines.

Group climbing the steps to the cave with Kate in the lead.
Group entering cave.
Daniel Hargreaves showing the first tiny bumblebee bat to our group.

Initially, we captured a long-winged tomb bat (Taphazous longimanus) but as the group was looking at that one, I netted two bumblebee bats (Craseonycteris thonglongyai). Both were females weighing around two grams. They were delicately held by group participants while I explained the species’ anatomy, ecology, and conservation status.

Mindy excited to be holding a famously tiny bumblebee bat.
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