Batman Returns

Last week, Merlin returned to his favorite institution of science, the Milwaukee Public Museum, where he spent his first 11 years as a young scientist (1974-86). He served as Curator of Mammals, with outstanding freedom to study and photograph bats, often funded and assisted by museum donors and volunteers, especially Verne and Marion Read and their family. Merlin resigned his position there in 1986 in order to devote full-time to the conservation of bats. He last spoke there some 15 years ago, but was still remembered and welcomed “home” by an extra large and enthusiastic audience despite having to compete with an important Green Bay Packers football game. Anyone who knows Wisconsin is aware that competing against the Packers is never easy!

Merlin’s much loved and never-to-be-forgotten Milwaukee mentors, Verne and Marion Read making friends with flying foxes in Australia.

His talk, titled The Incredible World of Bats, was a part of the museum’s Science on Tap Speaker Series, introduced by Mitch Teich, Executive Producer and Co-host of WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio’s “Lake Effect” program, who also interviewed Merlin on the show.

Merlin dedicated his talk to the  memory of Verne and Marion Read, who funded and participated in many of his earliest research and conservation initiatives, and continued to support his conservation efforts for decades even after his departure from Milwaukee. We especially enjoyed the generous hospitaltiy of our Milwaukee hosts, Ross and Mary Read, who along with brothers, Sandy and Tom, continue to provide much appreciated support for MTBC.

The museum takes great pride in its large, open-air dioramas that integrate natural history and anthropology. In fact, the world’s first diorama is still on display.

 

A gentle reminder of why Merlin prefered to spend winters studying bats in tropical climates.

 

Enjoying the museum’s butterfly garden!

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48th NASBR in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

This was Merlin’s 48th and Teresa Nichta’s 1st NASBR.

The 48th Annual North American Symposium on Bat Research conference was held in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico October 24-27. Hurricane Willa threatened but failed to dampen the enthusiasm of attendees who ended up enjoying perfect weather in a beautiful location. Our hosts Jorge Ortega and Rodrigo Medellin did a great job, and we were very favorably impressed with the outstanding conservation orientation of Mexican colleagues. Mexico’s students had an unusual opportunity to present their projects, ranging from bat pest control in walnut orchards to seed dispersal and the pollination of agaves from which all tequila is derived. Additional areas of conservation interest involved impacts of wind turbines, management of white-nose syndrome, and protection of roosts.

Rodrigo Medellin welcoming colleagues to the 48th meeting of the North American Symposium on Bat Research.

Many attendees were delighted to see Merlin and meet Teresa and share insights on the needs of bats. Based on his 60 years of field experience, Merlin has become increasingly concerned to see so many of today’s remaining bats living in marginal, sometimes barely survivable conditions, especially in caves. These unfortunate circumstances easily can be misinterpreted as what bats need, leading to inappropriate conservation measures. He was encouraged to see rapidly growing awareness of the futility of stopping or curing white-nose syndrome, with increasing focus on protection of survivors from disturbance at roosts. Where bats were protected from disturbance, signs of stabilization and recovery were reported.

Danielle Cordani, Vice President of the newly formed Bat Association at Texas State University, discussing her poster on bats at wind turbines with Merlin while Association President, Jacob Rogers, listens.
Teresa enjoying hotel flowers while Shahroukh Mistry, Associate Program Director, greets Merlin in background.
Canadian, Melissa Donnelly, explains her poster on Cuban bats.
Co-host, Rodrigo Medellin, shows off a freshly caught free-tailed bat.
Participants engaged in lively discussion at the annual Diversity in Science Breakfast.
Rodrigo leading strategic planning discussion, setting research priorities for lessor long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) in Mexico.
Dia de los muertos, Day of the Dead, celebration of the world’s extinct bats, prepared by Canadian, Charles Francis. This multi-day event in Mexico is a national holiday focused on remembering and honoring friends and family who have died.
Merlin congratulating Rodrigo on his outstanding conservation leadership in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

 

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So Many Birds…and Bats!

The keynote speaker for the 72nd Cape May Fall Festival was not a birder this year, but batman Merlin! His talk was on the evening of October 20, 2018 in the Grand Hotel with the theme The Incredible World of Bats. It seems as though birders are enthusiastic about bats as well. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with many giving up birding the following morning to attend his bat workshop. Participants had opportunities to ask questions and learn more about threats to bats and how to help them. We made many new friends for ourselves and bats. David Lapuma, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory remarked, “We pride ourselves in attracting the best speakers for our evening presentations, but this year was over the top.”  We thank David and New Jersey Audubon for the opportunity!

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Counting Free-tailed Bats in Bridges

9/10/18
By Merlin Tuttle

Merlin inspects Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) moments after removing them from their bridge crevice roost for counting.

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…)

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Bat-Friendly Bridges Help Farmers

Merlin Tuttle
9/12/18

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.

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Texas Department of Transportation Celebrates Bats

8/28/18
By Merlin Tuttle

 

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.

Merlin speaking to TxDOT media and public relations staff.
Merlin entertaining TxDOT staff with bat facts while waiting for Congress Ave Bridge bats to emerge.

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.

 

 

Emerging bats providing America’s most famous urban wildlife spectacle.

 

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Panel Discussion on Vampire Control

Wildlife Disease Association
St. Augustine, Florida
8/10/18
By Merlin Tuttle

The Wildlife Disease Association hosted a panel discussion on vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus), their impact, status, and changing distribution on August 5, 2018. A panel of six speakers from Europe, Mexico, and the U.S. were invited to speak. In the lead-off, tone-setting presentation,

Veterinarian and vampire control officer for Costa Rica, Dr. Hugo Sancho treating vampire bites with a mixture of Vaseline and warfarin to kill vampires that return to feed at the same wounds night after night. This kills only those that are causing problems.

I outlined the global value of bats, with special emphasis on Latin America, then proceeded to discuss my decades of observations on vampire control and the enormous damage done when beneficial species are inadvertently targeted. I favored control limited to the vampires causing problems. However, I emphasized that vampire problems are two-fold. One of course involves feeding on livestock and occasionally humans. The other involves their potential impact in crowding other species out of already declining roosting options. The dramatic expansion of vampire populations due to livestock introduction is likely impacting many other bat species that are essential to healthy ecosystems.

Yanomamo Indians living in remote rain forests of Venezuela.

During my early bat surveys in remote rain forests inhabited only by aboriginal Indians, I rarely encountered vampire bats. In fact, I do not recall ever having seen a Yanomamo Indian bitten, despite their habit of sleeping nude in lean-to shelters without mosquito nets. I first encountered significant numbers of vampire bats where Indians under European influence were keeping chickens, pigs, or other livestock. My anecdotal observations indicated that humans first became substantial targets when they began keeping pigs or chickens. Vampires became accustomed to feeding on these, and when they were slaughtered for feasts, the hungry bats turned to humans. Later when ranchers sold livestock, again suddenly reducing the food supply, vampires whose numbers had grown to depend on their herds, turned to people.

 

Only three species of vampires exist. All live only in Latin America, and only one, the common vampire, poses a significant threat to human interests. More than 350 other species are highly beneficial, keeping insect populations in check, pollinating flowers, and dispersing seeds.

A common vampire bat in Panama.

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Mosquito Eating in Bats

8/9/18
By Merlin Tuttle

For decades, bat biologists have debated the extent to which bats prey on, and potentially reduce mosquito populations. However, recent research suggests bats may be eating far more mosquitoes than yet suspected. Amy Wray and associates (2018) relied on newly refined techniques that provide greater sensitivity. In their paper, titled “Incidence and taxonomic richness of mosquitoes in the diets of little brown and big brown bats,” they reported that these common species eat a greater variety of mosquitoes, and catch them more frequently than previously suspected.

A little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus) in Wisconsin. Just one of these bats can catch 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour.

They tested guano samples from 22 locations in a range of habitats, across the State of Wisconsin, from May 17 through July 29. Seventy-two percent of little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus) samples contained mosquitoes representing 15 species, more than twice as many as big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus). But even the larger big brown bats, previously thought to feed mostly on beetles and moths evidenced mosquito-eating in 33 percent of samples. Frequency of mosquito-eating remained constant throughout the active season in big brown bats but declined slightly in little browns.

Little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus) from Tennessee.
A third of big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) in Wisconsin fed on mosquitoes.

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Bat Flash! Smithsonian Promotes Misleading Virus Hunter Claims

By Merlin Tuttle
8/3/18

 

The July 11, 2018 edition of Smithsonian.com contains another highly misleading story on virus hunters protecting us from pandemics. The story by Katherine J. Wu is titled, “A Never-Before-Seen-Virus Has Been Detected in Myanmar’s Bats.” Wu claims that to prevent the next Pandemic, we need to pinpoint it at the source. She then reports that “researchers in Myanmar have hit pay dirt with a never-before-seen virus that infects wrinkle-lipped bats—a virus in the same family as the ones that cause SARS and MERS.”

Merlin with a young Black flying fox (Pteropus alecto).

After further extolling the virtues of virus hunting, she quotes Chelsea Wood, reportedly a conservation ecologist, as saying that, “Tropical rainforests [in particular] are just cesspools of viral diversity—the highest viral diversity on the planet.” The headline and rhetoric in this article sound more like grocery store tabloid writing than something one would expect from America’s leading institution of science.

This story is a complete contradiction of a paper by epidemiologists, Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Andersen, titled “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction” which appeared in the Journal Nature on June 7, 2018. [1] Referring to virus hunting, they conclude that “given the rarity of outbreaks and the complexity of host-pathogen interactions, it is arrogant to imagine that we could use such surveys to predict and mitigate the emergence of disease.” They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention. They conclude that such approaches are an extremely costly waste of limited public health funds and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises.” (more…)

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Epidemiologists Acknowledge Virus Hunting as a Costly Waste

By Merlin Tuttle
6/15/18

Leading epidemiologists are finally acknowledging that the recently huge expenditures for virus hunting (mostly focused on bats) have little practical value in disease prevention. The June 7 issue of Nature contains a key paper titled, “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction.” In it Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Anderson combine their expertise to advocate a much-needed change of course in prevention of viral transmission from animals to humans, one that may also considerably brighten the future of bats.

They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises about disease prevention.” They “urge those working on infectious disease to focus funds and efforts on a much simpler and cost-effective way to mitigate outbreaks—proactive, real-time surveillance of human populations.”

Bats have an exceptional record of living safely with humans. But, they have been disproportionately searched, and victimized by virus hunter speculation, apparently because they are unpopular and easy to sample. This is an Angolan free-tailed bat (Mops condylurus), a species targeted for eradication following premature speculation linking it to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

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