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! 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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Bat Flash! Respond to Nipah Virus Warnings

By Merlin Tuttle
12/19/19

A December 8 Reuters press release, titled “Health experts warn of emerging threat of Nipah virus,” reported on a two-day Nipah conference in Singapore; picked up by CNA Asia and making headlines across much of Asia. On December 13, CNA World further reported that some experts believe Nipah to be a pandemic threat.

 

Both articles report flying foxes to be the carriers of this “deadly disease,” failing to mention its rarity or ease of prevention and speculating it to be a high-risk source of disease outbreaks over broad areas despite an absence of  historic documentation. There was no mention of the vital importance of flying foxes as key pollinators / seed dispersers or the necessity and ease of learning to live safely with them. Such exaggerated warnings threaten bats everywhere, but none more than flying foxes that are already in alarming decline.

 

Claims that such rare viruses are poised to become the next pandemic are no more than long-shot guesses. Predicting the source of the next pandemic is extremely complicated, costly, and risks the reputations of scientists who claim such ability. Funding priorities should focus on prompt surveillance and control, not prediction.  (more…)

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Renowned Photographer Aids Australia’s Flying Foxes

7/22/19
By Merlin Tuttle

 

Two grey-headed flying foxes, Pteropus poliocephalus, hang form a tree branch during a rain shower.

Doug Gimesy ranks among the very best when it comes to wildlife photographers. His numerous awards include winning the Wildscreen Panda Photo Story Award in 2018 and selection as the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year in 2019. But most importantly he is changing the way the world thinks about nature, having a heart for Australia’s much maligned flying foxes. He explains, “My hope is that the images and information I share will inspire people to stop, think, and treat the world a little more kindly.”

Doug is persuasively teaching the world about Australia’s flying foxes, from his story, “Night Gardeners” in the BBC Wildlife Magazine to “Urban battler” in Australian Geographic. View more of his flying fox photos on his site. (more…)

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WNS: Can a Cure Be Effective?

7/12/2019
By Merin Tuttle

 

Amid media announcements that the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats has spread to California, and growing public concern, The Wildlife Society announced the most recent attempt to find a cure. On July 9, an article titled “Bacteria treatment helps bats survive white-nose syndrome,” suggested progress toward a cure. However, there is no evidence that human intervention can slow the spread or cure the disease. As I’ve reported, the best available studies from the Northeast indicate that population recovery at key sites is exceeding expectations, and that a cure is unnecessary, impractical to implement, and risks unintended negative consequences. 

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Thank You For Your Voice – Editors are Listening and Bats are Benefiting

By Merlin Tuttle
6/27/19

A reminder that our members DO make a difference! Leading news media outlets are changing tack, publishing more positive, and fewer negative, stories about bats as a direct result of MTBC members’ ongoing support and actions.

Your vigilance brings misleading articles to our attention. Your support enables us to carefully document and explain issues of concern. Your personal, diplomatic comments to editors influence their further actions. Media portrayal of bats cannot be ignored. It is key to broad public understanding and support, without which conservation progress could prove impossible.

The intermediate horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus affinis) ranges from northern India to southern China. It is one of the horseshoe bats speculated, but still unproven to have caused the SARS epidemic.

Since 2014, we’ve prepared and distributed 15 blog posts and 18 Bat Flashes providing counterpoint documentation in response to exaggerated, misleading, and often completely wrong speculation attempting to link bats to rare, but scary diseases. Widely distributed publications included “Give Bats a Break” in Issues in Science and Technology (subsequently translated into French and Chinese), “Fear of Bats and its Consequences” in the Journal of Bat Research and Conservation, and “Humans Shouldn’t Be So Scared of Bats” in Slate. Additionally, the science journal, Nature, published a co-authored response in its correspondence section, titled “Don’t misrepresent link between bats and SARS.” (more…)

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Bat Flash! Scientific Credibility Under Siege—Sound Data Versus Premature Speculation

By Merlin Tuttle
2/21/19

Just as we enter a period of exceptional need for reliable science to protect and restore a healthy planet, too many traditionally prestigious science journals and institutions are rewarding bad science. (1) (2) “Scientists are supposed to relentlessly probe the fabric of reality with the most rigorous and skeptical of methods.” (3) Yet traditionally credible journals like Nature and Science are increasingly publishing sensational speculation, particularly studies attempting to link bats to deadly diseases. (4)

Growing numbers are attempting to prove rather than test hypotheses, sometimes based on a sample of just one viral fragment from a single bat. (5) Kai Kupferschmidt’s article titled, “This bat species may be the source of the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa,” exemplifies the problem. It is based on a highly questionable sample from one bat, though it appeared in the online news site of the journal Science (January 24, 2019).

The common bent-winged bat lives in caves and cave-like locations from southern Europe to Japan and Southeast Asia to China, the Philippines and Solomon Islands, most of Africa and eastern Australia. It is insectivorous, often feeding on small beetles, and forms large colonies, some exceeding 100,000 individuals.

As is typical in such stories, it begins with a scary question that will grab readership and media attention. That Science title is followed by a emboldened quote stating that “This is an important new lead and it should be followed up extensively.”

Later quotes, less emphasized, admit that only a small viral fragment was found, and that it may have come from an infected insect eaten by the bat. In other words, this bat may have simply eaten an Ebola-carrying insect, completely changing the bat’s role from implied source to controller. Perhaps if virologists weren’t so focused on proving that Ebola comes from bats, they might have found the true source by now.

A growing number of leading virologists are warning that virus hunting, promoted by such articles, is a costly waste. The unsupportable public health promises being made are likely to demean the credibility of science. (6) Scientists need incentives for finding the right answer rather than for simply getting published. (1)

Kupferschmidt’s article ends with a warning that bats shouldn’t be killed. However, as already documented, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear, especially bats. (7) (8)

The New York Times ran a similar account of the same story, authored by Denise Grady. It was titled “Deadly Ebola Virus Is Found in Liberian Bat, Researchers Say.” The author admits “It feels premature scientifically” but fails to admit that the small viral fragment may have come from an infected insect eaten by the bat, making the bat a potential aid in limiting the spread of Ebola. They too, belatedly and ineffectively, admonish not to kill bats.

Sensational and premature reports like these are clearly irresponsible and risk great harm to both scientific credibility and the environment. (more…)

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A Big Step for Bats

Merlin Tuttle
1/22/19

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.

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
1/8/19

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)

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