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.
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.
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!
“Thank you so much for your concern, and for reading the bioGraphic story about Nipah virus. I really appreciate it. I assure you that I am a strong proponent of bats and the tremendously important ecological roles they play. I also think that bats are simply amazing creatures in their many forms and functions. (When you have time, please take a look at bioGraphic‘s other bat stories as evidence of that appreciation: Glimmers in the Dark, Battling Disease, Bat Ballet, and Agave Whisperers.)”
He went on to explain it is never his intention to vilify or advocate killing of bats and hopes he is being clear.
12/20/18 Merlin response
“I do not doubt your concern for bats or your good intentions. As I’ve commented, most of your article was just fine. My complaint lies in labeling bats to be the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals. Our background experiences are apparently strikingly different. Mine regarding the impact of public fear have been summarized recently. I’d be delighted to learn more about whatever experiences led you to your apparently differing concerns. However, I’d much prefer to simply share our perspectives over the phone.”
12/20/18 Steven Bedard response
“Thank you for your reply. I look forward to the opportunity to speak with you. I first heard of your research when I was an undergrad studying zoology and ecology at Colorado State in the late 80’s, so it would be an honor to “meet” by phone.”
He further notes that he extensively interviewed disease experts and explains, “You will see in the article that I chose my words very carefully. I did not say that ‘bats are the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals.’ Humans hold that dubious distinction. What I wrote is that, ‘Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.’ That statement is most certainly true, according to my sources, as well as published research such as this Nature paper published in June 2017.
He also noted, “Some of your followers have expressed concern that if people in Bangladesh understand where the virus is coming from that they will begin to persecute bats.”
[Merlin’s thoughts—That is a serious misunderstanding. Scientists and conservationists have a responsibility to inform the public of disease sources, locations, and how to avoid them. We also must condemn sensational speculation and exaggeration, either of which can seriously harm both public health and bats.]
12/21/18 Merlin response
As per your suggestion, I’ve read your recent stories from bioGraphic and congratulate you on some very fine promotion of bat values. In fact, your “Glimmers in the Dark” article is the best I’ve seen on WNS. Given your clear concern for bats, I’m especially looking forward to speaking with you by phone when you return early in the New Year. When ready, simply suggest a time and phone number, and I’ll be happy to call.
We’ve likely had rather different experiences on the impact of exaggerated disease fears. Unlike you, I’ve had the misfortune of repeatedly seeing the results first hand.
During my early research in Tennessee, I met cave owners who burned many thousands of endangered gray bats by lighting kerosene in their roosts due to exaggerated rabies warnings. In Mexico, I took the attached photo of a few of the estimated 250,000 skeletons of insect-eating bats we found on reopening a roost where a fearful owner had sealed the bats inside. And, while photographing bats for my 2014 National Geographic article, I found a major bat cave recently sealed (with the bats inside) due to disease fears in a Cuban national park. In my experience, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear. In fact, the free-tailed bat colony speculated to have been the source of the 2014 Ebola outbreak was burned in its roost.
Seeing how well intended you are, I hope you will read my 2017 report on fear-motivated bat killing and its impact on conservation. I am quite familiar with the Nature paper reporting that bats harbor a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than any other mammal group and look forward to discussing it with you.
[Note that Merlin has rebutted the aforementioned Nature article, read his response HERE.]
Original Response By Merlin Tuttle 12/19/18
Steven Bedard’s article, “The Reservoir,” in the December 12 issue of bioGraphic contains many important points, and the accompanying photography by A.M. Ahad is outstanding. Nevertheless, the subtitle is exaggerated speculation. The claim that a bat-borne virus in Bangladesh is poised to become the next pandemic is no more than a long-shot guess.
Neither historic precedent nor credible science support the statement that “Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.” Bats have an outstanding record of not transmitting disease to humans, though they are poorly understood and widely feared. They are the easiest mammals to quickly sample, so virus hunters disproportionately focus on bats, of course finding more viruses in them because that is where they are looking!
Unfortunately, speculating possible linkages between bats and rare, but scary viruses has created a perfect storm of grant-getting success and media coverage. Resulting biases can impede public health progress and lead to public intolerance of bats that are ecologically and economically essential. (1) (2)
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,not prediction. (3)
Nipah, like other so-called “emerging viruses,” is ancient. As reported in Bedard’s article, it likely has been infecting humans for hundreds of years, unrecognized due to its rarity. Nevertheless, as the human population expands beyond sustainability, poverty, stress, and the conditions favorable to pandemics will make major outbreaks virtually inevitable, as stated. But it’s anybody’s guess where they will come from. Focusing too narrowly on bats may be impeding progress. Unsustainable growth in human populations is the real problem, one which few are willing to address.
Education regarding the risks of drinking raw palm juice is commendable. Perhaps the next step should be family planning. Nature has two remedies for overpopulation, pandemics and famine. Studies of rare diseases in bats will prevent neither.
Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to bioGraphic 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!
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!
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 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.
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.
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!
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 50 years of in-depth knowledge and experience Merlin Tuttle, renowned bat expert, educator and wildlife photographer founded MTBC with one true goal in mind; teaching the world to understand and appreciate the vital contributions bats make to human beings and the world we live in.