Education is Key to Flying Fox Survival

Merlin Tuttle

In response to the Mongabay article of August 29 titled, “Bats and viruses: Beating back a bad reputation,” Dr. Sheema Abdul Aziz, commented as follows on September 5:

Sheema in a durian tree.

“Actually this article neglected to mention another huge problem caused by these negative representations of bats. It’s not just about deliberate human killings of bats – even where bats are not being killed by people, the repercussions of this negative reputation are still damaging in indirect ways because it affects efforts and funding for research and conservation. I am currently the only person working on the conservation ecology of Pteropus in Malaysia, where there has been such a disproportionate amount of attention, effort, and money put into researching ONLY the virology and public health aspects of these bats. Hardly anyone is interested in looking at the conservation ecology aspect; never mind that these bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers, and are severely threatened by hunting – all topics which desperately require more attention and work. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be constantly approached by other researchers who are only interested in collaborating on virology, or to be told that I can only get funding if I include a disease and public health aspect in my project. Ultimately these bats will go extinct if people – including researchers and funders – are simply too focused on worrying about whether we’re going to catch diseases from them, instead of trying to mitigate the threats that we humans present to them. This kind of attitude is very, very damaging to bat conservation.”

Dr. Aziz explaining flying fox pollination to Mak Long, owner of the durian orcharad where her Ph.D. rhesis research was conducted. MTBC photos are playing a vital role in educating islanders to a better appreciation of flying foxes.
Sheema using a light microscope to look for pollen grains in flying fox droppings.

Dr. Aziz is one of a very few researchers in her part of the world dedicated to helping people understand the economic and ecological importance of conserving flying foxes. Her research titled, “Pollination by the locally endangered island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) enhances fruit production of the economically important durian (Durio zibethinus),” recently appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

In her paper, she provides information critical to convincing islanders to protect flying foxes, namely that they are playing a key role as pollinators of one of Southeast Asia’s most valued crops, not causing damage as previously believed. She used camera and video traps to document that island flying foxes (Pteropus hyomelanus) do not damage durian flowersas even some researchers had suspected. Video traps clearly absolved the bats. Island flying foxes and cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea) are major pollinators. The damage was caused by plantain squirrels (Callosciurus notatus) who often ate immature flowers.


Aziz also notes that flying foxes sometimes can become a nuisance when roosting too near people, causing both noise and odor problems. She hopes to find a way to harmlessly convince these bats to move farther away, so they will be more welcome. There is an urgent need for education to minimize negative biases while solving legitimate nuisances. Aziz emphasizes the need to find solutions to real problems instead of needlessly scaring people about rare threats.

Large flying foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) have wingspans of nearly six feet, the largest of any bat. They are widespread in Southeast Asia, Borneo and the Philippines, but are in alarming decline due to over-harvesting for human food, and are often needlessly killed when entering orchards.

She reports, “I have been using your [Merlin Tuttle’s] photos, especially the amazing shots of P. vampyrus, in all the presentations I give. It’s enormously helpful because the only shots I have of that species are the poor dead ones shot by a hunter, and it’s not a very nice picture at all. I think it would be almost impossible for me to get a good photo of P. vampyrus here in Malaysia! Your close-up shots of Pteropus pollinating and feeding on fruit are also particularly useful for illustrating bat ecosystem services – I used these in a public talk I gave, at an event organized by the Malaysian Heritage and History Club, which was very well received. And of course, I also used your photos in the awareness video! I now use them anytime I want to talk about bat ecosystem services.”

An island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus), the focus of Dr. Azizes’ primary research.

Aziz is devoting her career to helping people solve problems while benefiting from the essential contributions of flying foxes. If bats are to survive in sufficient numbers to fulfil their critical environmental and ecological roles, Aziz, and many more like her will need all the help they can get. Just saving a few endangered remnants is not enough!

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Documenting Billion-Dollar Bats

Cave Nectar Bat pollinates durian.
Cave Nectar Bat pollinates durian.


Dr. Sara Bumrungsri, a leading bat ecologist, invited us to help document the essential roles of Cave Nectar Bats (Eonycteris spelaea) in pollinating some of SE Asia’s most ecologically and economically valuable plants near Hat Yai in Thailand’s Songkhla Province. We set up our bat photo studio in Sara’s lab at the Prince of Songkhla University, caught two cave nectar bats in mist nets set beneath durian flowers in an orchard, tamed them so they would go about their normal activities in Merlin’s enclosure, then brought them fresh flowers so he could photographically document their importance as pollinators.


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ATBI Conference Keynote address



Friday March 21, 2014 – Merlin Tuttle Keynote Address

Park Vista Hotel in Gatlinburg 6-9 p.m.

The Amazing World of Bats

Bats comprise nearly a quarter of all mammals. They come in an amazing variety, as cute as any panda or as strange as any dinosaur, from tiny bamboo bats that live in beetle holes to giant flying foxes with six-foot wingspans. They’re found nearly everywhere, are primary seed dispersers in both deserts and rain forests, pollinate some of the world’s most valuable crops and save American farmers billions of dollars annually in avoided pesticide use.  They maintain long-term social relationships similar to those of humans, elephants and dolphins, share information and even adopt orphans.

If you’d like to learn more about these fascinating creatures, you won’t want to miss Dr. Merlin Tuttle’s talk, “The Amazing World of Bats.” His stunning photographs show bats courting mates, rearing young, emerging from beetle holes, pollinating crops and flowers, fishing, catching insects and much more.

Introduced to the study of bats in Knoxville while a student at the University of Tennessee, Tuttle has now traveled the world for more than 50 years studying and photographing hundreds of species of bats, from bizarre to beautiful. His extraordinary photographs have been published and exhibited worldwide, including in five National Geographic articles. His latest is scheduled to appear in the March 2014 issue. He founded Bat Conservation International and has been an invited speaker at America’s most prestigious institutions, from Harvard and Princeton Universities to the National Geographic Society and Smithsonian.

Keynote address includes reception, silent auction with food and drink.

For those not attending the conference there is a $10 fee.

Saturday March 22, 2014 – Merlin Tuttle Knoxville Reception at the East TN History Center – 5-7 p.m.

A National Geographic Preview—Flowers that guide bat echolocation, the story behind the story

Dr. Merlin Tuttle has lectured at most of America’s premier institutions and his fifth National Geographic article is scheduled to appear in the March 2014 issue. The article features recent discoveries of highly sophisticated floral adaptations that acoustically guide echolocating bats to specific sites in flowers, ensuring exclusive bat pollination. Tuttle worked in Costa Rica, Cuba and Ecuador, taking more than 20,000 images for this story. He will share his spectacular, high-speed action photos as well as highlights of the challenges and techniques involved in getting these images.

Reception includes food, drinks and a signed copy of National Geographic (the first 100 paying attendees).  Cost $25.

DLIA’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) Conference highlights the amazing biodiversity research happening in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For more information call 865-430-4757 or visit our web site at Discover Life in America

DLIA’s mission is to discover and understand America’s species through science and education for conservation. DLIA’s flagship project, the ATBI, is a joint effort with the National Park System to identify and record every single species within the park. To date DLIA has assisted in adding 7,636 new species to the park’s records and 926 new to science.

To download the announcement, click here MerlinTuttleprogramsinformation

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The National Geographic Story, “Call of the Bloom”

The National Geographic story “Call of the Bloom” has been four years in the making, but it’s finally published! It was conceived in 2010 when Merlin and I heard Ralph Simon, from the University of Ulm, in Germany, present his doctoral research at the 15th International Bat Research Conference, held in Prague. Merlin was immediately fascinated by Ralph’s research on how plants manipulate bat echolocation to attract them, believing it had excellent potential for helping people better appreciate bats. He proposed a collaboration featuring Ralph’s discoveries in a story for National Geographic. Editors liked the idea, and by early November 2011 we began some extraordinarily challenging field work. Ralph Simon was the expert on bat-adapted flowers, Merlin the photographer, Susan McGrath, the assigned science writer, and I was jack-of-all-trades assistant.

Unlike bats, hummingbirds failed to touch Marcgravia anthers which were loaded with pollen

Our initial challenge was to photograph bats pollinating plants that rely on upturned leaves and flower petals that reflect bat echolocation to guide them. The first of these was the rare Marcgravia evenia flowers in Cuba. This plant had been assumed to be pollinated by hummingbirds, though Ralph had discovered that these birds were only stealing nectar. Just three days before our planned departure in mid-April 2011, we learned that our work visas hadn’t yet been approved, forcing a year’s postponement. Though unable to photograph Cuban bats in 2011, Ralph and his hospitable colleagues there double checked to be sure we knew when and where Marcgravia flowers could be found in bloom in 2012.

In the meantime we decided to begin work at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. On the 10th of November, we had barely gotten Merlin’s photo studio set up and captured four nectar-eating bats, when torrential rains began, and it poured almost continuously for the next three weeks of our stay. Merlin and Ralph quickly tamed the bats so they would ignore us while happily visiting the sea bean (Mucuna holtonii) flowers we brought. Then we built studio sets, indistinguishable from the surrounding forest, in the shelter of our assigned cabina. The bats happily visited our flowers. In fact preventing them from visiting before Merlin could be ready to take pictures was sometimes challenging! Watch Defending the flower on YouTube!

Susan and I were often recruited to help Ralph find blooming plants in the flooded forest, which soon became choked with voracious mosquitoes. We had to locate buds by day, then return after dark with a ladder and long pole clippers to bring them within reach, being careful not to damage them, sometimes while riding a bicycle. Merlin and Ralph would then take a couple of hours to build a set, and photography would begin around 10 PM.

Fortunately, sea bean flowers were relatively abundant. As described by Susan, each flower had a tiny trigger point that must be touched by a bat tongue, causing it to fire pollen onto the bat’s rump. We could never be certain exactly when a flower would fire its pollen, so Merlin could only guess when to trigger his camera and high-speed flashes. It all happened in a tiny fraction of a second. Extreme patience and some 10,000 images were required to finally capture the event.

When we finally arrived in Cuba on the 6th of March 2012, despite earlier reconnaissance to verify flowering times, most of the flowers weren’t ready to bloom. Desperate, Ralph and his Cuban colleagues, Yayo Reyes and Margarita Sanchez, scoured the countryside to no avail. Finally, in a remote area, they found several plants blooming and excitedly phoned Merlin and me to pack and get ready to move. Then, just as we were ready, Ralph was informed that, though our permits allowed us to visit the new location, they did not permit us to take pictures!

In great dejection, Ralph called us with the news, but suggested we unpack and keep our already tamed bats. He and Yayo would try to bring two flower clusters known as inflorescences, along with substantial set-building material. They would have to hold the stems submerged in water for a several-hour drive over rough roads, but remained hopeful. Merlin and I were terrified that the plants would wilt, and we’d miss our last chance. Luckily, they arrived safely, and we got some great shots of our bats visiting them. We did later find one flowering Marcgravia plant in a mountaintop cloud forest that required a long hike to shoot hummingbird visits between torrential showers.

To complete the story, we still needed to visit Rio Leon Valley in the Andes of Ecuador, home of a unique cactus (Espostoa frutescens) found nowhere else. Ralph and his major professor, Otto von Helrsen, had seen it years earlier and speculated it to be bat-dependent for pollination. They suspected that this rare plant relied on an opposite approach to guiding echo-locating bats, though no one had ever seen any potential pollinator visit it. Since it had not been studied no one had any idea what triggered it to bloom.

We relied on an Ecuadorian colleague, Vinicio Santillan, to email us when he found flowers. For six months all reports were negative until just a few days after our return from Cuba. We got an email showing photos of the cactus plants flowering. We repacked and arrived in Ecuador in just three days. But none of the plants still showed signs of buds. For a week we scoured the rugged valley for even one plant in bloom, but to no avail. We hiked for miles each day, often descending as much as 1,500 feet vertically on treacherous trails where a fall could have been fatal. By the time Ralph and a Paraguayan colleague, Nery Chamorro, arrived to help, we were quite discouraged.

A local shaman, Juan Valdi, suspected that flowering was triggered by the moon, meaning that we might have to wait for a whole month. Even worse, rancher Luis Salazar believed that the plants likely responded to rain, but predicted there would be no more rain for at least three months! Fortunately, Luis appears to have been right about the cactus responding to rain but wrong in his weather forecasting. A day later it began to rain daily. The cactus plants bloomed, and with Luis’ help we found them.

Then came the real suspense. Would the bats we had captured nearby be the right ones to pollinate our cactus? Not yet fully acclimated to working with us, they made us wait for nearly an hour in Merlin’s studio before repeatedly visiting our flower. What a relief!

In the end, Merlin shot more than 20,000 images for a story that used just five in the magazine version, with several more included online at Call of the Bloom

Why work so hard to publish a bat story in National Geographic? Because as Merlin says, “There is no better place to have worldwide impact for bats. Also, the remaining 20,000 as yet unpublished images will be a gold mine for conservationists educating the public about the values of bats.” Here are just a couple of those images: 

National Geographic Magazine link to the story Call of the Bloom

National Geographic Daily News link of Merlin’s interview,  To Know Bats Is to Love Them


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Dawn Bats Pollinating Parkia and Wild Banana

Merlin feeding a Greater Long-tongued Nectar Bat (Macroglossus sobrinus)

On our first day in Hat Yai, after a 20-minute drive from our hotel, we arrived at the Prince of Songkla University (PSU) with Sara and Pushpa. We were given a large lab room in which to set up our photography studio while Pushpa, Pipat and others went mist netting for nectar bats for us to photograph. They returned with two Dawn Bats (Eonycteris spelaea) which were hand-fed by Pushpa and released into the studio for the night.

Pushpa feeding the bats

After midnight, finding a tuk tuk (auto taxi) on campus to get to our hotel was not possible. Pushpa found a motorbike taxi, and Merlin got on with the driver, while I got on Pushpa’s bike. At 2 o’clock in the morning, we had the roads to ourselves.

Logistically, it was difficult to work so far from the bats, so we were offered guest housing on the PSU campus for the rest of our stay. We are grateful to Tuenjit Sritongchuay (a.k.a. Fon), a Ph.D. student, for coming up with the suggestion and personally making all the arrangements. Except when we got locked into the building where we were working or got lost, wandering around the campus at 3 a.m., it worked out really well!

Merlin in a tuk tuk

In the evenings, soon after sundown, we searched for flowers with limited success. We were most interested in photographing bats pollinating Parkia flowers to show the economic value of bats as essential pollinators of the petai or stink bean crop obtained from this plant. It was the end of their flowering season, so they were neither easy to find nor to reach. Pushpa climbed a tree and used a long-handled pruner and carefully lowered the light-bulb shaped flowers down to Merlin and Fon below.

Cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea) and Parkia flower

One night, we went to the mangroves with Sara and two students from Bhutan to search for flowers from the tree Sonneratia ovata. Unfortunately, they weren’t flowering.

Cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea)
Cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea) pollinating a wild banana flower


We needed to keep our bats working, coming to flowers, so Sara brought us flowering stalks of wild bananas. On a previous trip to Thailand, Merlin had taken an excellent photo of a bat pollinating wild banana all covered in pollen, but why not try to improve?

In total, we photographed 22 genera and 32 bat species, a wonderfully successful trip, thanks to many outstanding helpers.










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