Bat Flash! Help Last Week Tonight Put Bats in Perspective

The Last Week Tonight with John Oliver February 15th episode shared misguided speculations about bats. Here is Merlin’s public letter to John Oliver. We don’t have his email address, so we’re counting on you to help get his attention. No shade, John, we understand the topic is muddy. We simply want the opportunity to set the record straight!

Contact information and action steps are listed below.

Dear John,

Given your reputation for integrity and fearless candor, several of your loyal followers have asked me to help you better understand disease risks from bats. Why me? Because, as one of the world’s most experienced bat researchers, I’ve handled hundreds of species worldwide for 60 years, often surrounded by millions in caves. I’ve also led successful conservation efforts internationally for more than 40 years. My experience and photographs are used worldwide, including in National Geographic articles, to share the truth about bats through my organization, Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation. Here’s a clip from my appearance on David Letterman decades ago; I have been leading efforts to educate humans about bats my entire career.

I, and hundreds of others who study bats, have spent whole careers working with them unprotected against any of the so-called emerging diseases about which we’re now warned. And we’re still healthy. We’re also aware that millions of people visit and work in caves annually without causing disease outbreaks.

Thus, we question the sanity of warnings of extreme risks to visitors of tour caves where a bat could purportedly cause a deadly pandemic by defecating on them. There is no proof that such an event has ever occurred. And warning of the possibility is like warning of death from a falling spacecraft, possible but extremely unlikely.

I appreciate your mention of the far greater risks from industrial meat production and your comments on the essential contributions of bats to a healthy planet, but this is not enough to cultivate understanding and put risks in perspective. For the record, unlike rodents who are overpopulating due to the loss of predators, bats are extraordinarily vulnerable to extinction and already in alarming decline.

Exaggerated fear is the greatest cause of human intolerance and killing of bats. Unfortunately, sensational speculation, linking them to scary diseases, sells headline media stories and large grants. Virus hunting, typically linked to bats, has been shown to be an ineffective means of pandemic prevention. However, because bats are the easiest mammals to sample, and have few defenders, they have become tempting victims. Your guest failed to mention that, for anyone who simply doesn’t handle bats, the risk of contracting any disease from one is minuscule. In fact, millions of bats share cities with people from America to Africa and Australia without causing disease outbreaks. As our human population continues to expand, we inescapably must learn to live in harmony with nature.

Although well-intended, the following documented points are too often distorted or ignored in sensational media coverage. I’d be more than happy to assist you and your staff in balancing the story.

  • Bats harbor no more viruses than other animals 1.
  • Claims of disease from bats are often based on poorly supported speculation 2.
  • Claims of 96% genomic similarity between viruses are meaningless and misleading 3,4.
  • Promises that can’t be kept are misdirecting billions of dollars to virus hunting that is counterproductively biased toward bats and better spent on other health priorities 5,6, 7.
  • Bats have an undeniable history of living with humans without causing disease outbreaks 8.
  • There is a long history of lucrative, but exceptionally harmful, exploitation of disease exaggerations against bats 9.
  • Fear of bats leads to intolerance and killing 9,10.
  • Asking people to conserve bats because they are beneficial, while failing to counter exaggerated fear, is unlikely to improve conservation success 10.
  • Ebola was first speculated to come from fruit bats, then insectivorous bats, but more recently it was admitted that no source has been found despite extensive efforts 11, 12.
  • It cannot be stated strongly enough that Ebola, SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2 have not been isolated from a bat despite frequent attempts.

Also, here’s a recent video sponsored by the U.S. National Park Service about putting bat fears in perspective. Thank you for your time, I hope to hear from you.

Kindly, 

Merlin

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. We encourage you to invite John to discuss the truth about bats with Merlin and politely share your opinion in your own words via social media. 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.

It’s numbers that count and bats need all of you! Tell a friend about bat values and how they can help.

Millions of visitors have safely viewed spectacular emergences of 1.5 million bats in Austin, Texas.

References

  1. Mollentze, N. & Streicker, D. G. Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2020) doi:10.1073/pnas.1919176117.
  2. Wenzel, J. Origins of SARS‐CoV‐1 and SARS‐CoV‐2 are often poorly explored in leading publications. Cladistics cla.12425 (2020) doi:10.1111/cla.12425.
  3. Mallapaty, S. Coronaviruses Closely Related to the Pandemic Discovered in Japan and Cambodia. Nature 588, 15–16 (2020).
  4. Mikkelsen, T. S. et al. Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome. Nature 437, 69–87 (2005).
  5. Holmes, E. C., Rambaut, A. & Andersen, K. G. Pandemics: Spend on surveillance, not prediction. Nature 558, 180–182 (2018).
  6. Zhang, Y.-Z. & Holmes, E. C. A Genomic Perspective on the Origin and Emergence of SARS-CoV-2. Cell (2020) doi:10.1016/j.cell.2020.03.035.
  7. Tuttle, M.D. A Viral Witch Hunt. Issues in Science and Technology. (2020) https://issues.org/a-viral-witch-hunt-bats/.
  8. Taylor, M. Bats: An Illustrated Guide to All Species. (Smithsonian Books, 2018).
  9. Tuttle, M. D. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Journal of Bat Research & Conservation 10, (2017).
  10. Lu, M. et al. Does public fear that bats spread COVID-19 jeopardize bat conservation? Biological Conservation 108952 (2021) doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.108952.
  11. Marí Saéz, A. et al. Investigating the zoonotic origin of the West African Ebola epidemic. EMBO Molecular Medicine 7, 17–23. (2015) doi:10.15252/emmm.201404792
  12. Kock, R.A. et al. Searching for the source of Ebola: the elusive factors driving its spillover into humans during the West African outbreak of 2013-2016. Revue Scientifique et Technique (2019) doi:10.20506/rst.issue.38.1.2937.

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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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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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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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Bat Flash! COVID-19 Coronavirus Leads to More Premature Scapegoating of Bats

By Merlin Tuttle
Updated 03/26/20

The source of human exposure to the COVID-19 virus, or as it was first called, Wuhan virus, according to the March 12th edition of The Conversation, has yet to be identified. However, in a rush to judgment, far too many public health officials and media outlets are focusing almost entirely on bats. This has been seen in multiple news sources, from CNN to Vice. Such speculation can be counterproductive, especially when acted on as fact.

Bats, despite their essential ecological and economic roles, rank among our planet’s most rapidly declining and endangered animals1. They have few defenders and are often mistakenly viewed as dangerous. People who fear bats are less tolerant and frequently kill them 2.

Fear is needlessly created when virologists emphasize potentially distant evolutionary relationships that shed little light on where and how a virus is actually transmitted to humans. Bats are currently believed to harbor more kinds of viruses than other mammals. But even if true, there is no credible documentation of higher risk of transmission3. Most viruses are innocuous or even beneficial 3,4.

Bats, like any living organism, are capable of harboring scary viruses, yet transmission is rare, typically only to humans who carelessly handle a bat that bites in self-defense, followed by failure to seek medical attention. Nipa virus, in India and Bangladesh, is acquired by drinking unpasteurized palm juice, eating unwashed fruit, or associating with sick pigs5.

For more than a decade, virologists have used increasingly sophisticated technology to disproportionately search for new viruses in colonial bats6. New viruses can be found by looking no farther than our own human bodies, and they’re all related at some level4! We’re 96 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees7.

Scientists at Singapore’s Bioinformatics Institute examined a key surface protein on the COVID-19 virus and found it just 79 percent genetically similar to SARS, noting that these viruses “are like comparing a dog and a cat.” 8 This flies in the face of widespread claims of similarity.

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Thai Adventures Part 2: Flying Foxes

1/21/20

By Daniel Hargreaves

Several hours after leaving the painted bat village, we arrived at the Wat Chantaram, Buddhist temple, in Ang Thong province. The monks protect Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in the courtyard. We explained the ecology and diet of the species and how the group should approach the colony to minimize disturbance. Slowly approached, most of the bats remained calm allowing us to watch them grooming as they prepared to depart for the evening. The bats steadily increased their activity and their chattering became louder as they started to fly out in all directions, leaving the temple grounds in search of fruiting or flowering trees. As the bats were leaving, we could hear the monks chanting inside the temple providing a magical backdrop to the evening.

Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in Jantraram Temple courtyard, protected by monks in Thailand.

The following morning, we headed to Bang Pahan village in search of a second Lyle’s flying fox camp (a colony roosting site). The bats had set up camp alongside the river and after several attempts we discovered a spot where we could get closer.

Our focus was on photographing these roughly four-foot wingspan bats as they flew among roost trees. These weren’t as well protected, and something had made them nervous. They had a right to be, as some had wing membranes were perforated with holes from apparent shotgun pellets. Our group looked in awe as hundreds of these flying giants took to the sky, moving farther along the river.

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Thai Adventures Part 1: Painted Bats

1/24/20

By Daniel Hargreaves

Following a 6-hour road journey from Bangkok we arrived at our first destination, the painted bat village. With only two hours left before sunset, we split into two teams. One assisted Merlin with setting up the flight studio. The other went to find a painted bat to photograph in the studio that evening. Team two headed out in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors. They quickly spit into small groups furiously searching the dried leaves of banana plants for bats. 

Riding in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors to find painted bats.

It wasn’t long before we found a single male painted bat (Kerivoula picta) hanging in a dried leaf about a meter from the ground. The bat had been banded for research, so although a good candidate, we didn’t disturb him and continued our search for more. Less than 200 meters away we found another male this time without a band. We quickly checked his weight at 4.6 grams (less than the weight of a U.S. nickel) and decided he was a perfect candidate for flight cage training.

This one was carefully placed in a soft bag, and to ensure picture and set authenticity we took the bat and the leaf he was roosting in back to the village. (There was no shortage of such leaves.) Leanne Townsend balanced precariously on the back of a moped, holding the bat and set material, as it sped to the village in order to setup for the night’s photography. As our Thai hosts prepared a banquet for their guests, Merlin got to work on the set, helped by an enthusiastic group of members fascinated to watch the master at work. As soon as the set was ready, we fed and watered the little star and released him into the studio. The group looked on as his shallow wing beats resembled that of a butterfly. He investigated every corner of the studio until he was sure there was no easy escape, then entered his now relocated roost.

Photo: Daniel Hargreaves
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