A Big Step for Bats

Merlin Tuttle

Today’s issue of TheScientist contains another outstanding example of how MTBC is making a unique, but critical difference for bats. This article 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.

Rousette fruit bats are essential pollinators and seed dispersers. They form colonies of many thousands in caves and abandoned mines where they are extremely vulnerable to extermination. Tens of thousands were killed at a single site in Uganda by humans overreacting to fear of Marburg virus.

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.




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Bat Flash! Washington Post Exaggerates Disease Risk from Bats

Merlin Tuttle’s Response

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)



Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to The Washington Post 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!

Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus), the subject of this Post article, are key pollinators and seed dispersers. Single cave-dwelling colonies can service large areas. This one belonged to a colony of 50,000 in Kenya and is pollinating a baobab flower. Baobab fruits sell for a billion dollars annually as a rich source of natural vitamins.


  1. Sun, Lena H. On a Bat’s Wing and a Prayer. The Washington Post. [Online] December 13, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/national/wp/2018/12/13/feature/these-bats-carry-the-lethal-marburg-virus-and-scientists-are-tracking-them-to-try-to-stop-its-spread/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0ed7e1d53a54.
  2. WHO Global Health Observatory (GHO) data. WHO. [Online] 2015. https://www.who.int/gho/hiv/en/.
  3. Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals. WHO. [Online] 2016. https://www.who.int/immunization/monitoring_surveillance/burden/estimates/rotavirus/en/.
  4. Obesity: Facts, Figures, Guidelines. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. [Online] 1999. https://www.wvdhhr.org/bph/oehp/obesity/mortality.htm.
  5. Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance: Biggest Threats and Data. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. [Online] 2013. https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/biggest_threats.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fdrugresistance%2Fthreat-report-2013%2Findex.html.
  6. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Tuttle, Merlin. 1, s.l. : Journal of Bat Research & Conservation, 2017, Vol. 10.
  7. Tuttle, Merlin. Give Bats a Break. Issues in Science and Technology. Spring 2017.







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Response to Inappropriate Coverage of Bats and Ebola in Smithsonian Publication

Response to Smithsonian story, “Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?”
Merlin Tuttle


Lorraine Boissoneault’s story, Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?, is clearly well intended. However, when it comes to fruit bats and Ebola it is based on outdated speculation that threatens serious harm to a group of mammals that is already in alarming decline. For a summary of current knowledge of bats versus Ebola and other rare, but so-called emerging diseases, and their speculated association with bats, I refer you to my article in the current edition of Issues in Science and Technology, titled “Give Bats a Break.”

Diseases that are millions of years old, but that are just now being discovered due to their rarity, are being referred to as “emerging” as an apparent public relations ploy to make them sound more dangerous. And speculating associations with bats makes them even more scary, since many people already fear bats. This has proven unprecedentedly effective in gaining hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to support so-called virus hunters, who must continue speculating about potentially dire threats from bat diseases to keep their grants flowing.

Bats historically have one of the world’s finest records of living safely with humans, first in caves and thatched huts, then in log cabins.

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.


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UPDATE!  Ebola virus researchers considering alternative reservoir hypotheses, bats unlikely

Hundeds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) emerging from their roost in a city park in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Such huge colonies have occupied African cities throughout recorded history without causing disease outbreaks.
Hundreds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) emerging from their roost in a city park in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Such huge colonies have occupied African cities throughout recorded history without causing disease outbreaks.

Following years of headline speculation reporting bats to be the reservoir for Ebola, a review of current knowledge points elsewhere. This often fatal disease is caused by the Ebolavirus genus, which includes five species (Sudan, Zaire, Bundibugyo, Tai Forest and Reston virus). The geographical distribution of these species along separate river basins is inconsistent with a highly mobile source, such as bats, that easily cross basin borders. (more…)

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