Merlin\'s Keynote Message at the 46th Annual Symposium of the North American Society for Bat Research.\n\nMerlin provided perspective on bat conservation progress in America over the 46 years since annual meetings of North American bat researchers began in 1970. At that time most Americans had been led to believe that bats were little more than disease carrying, mostly rabid vermin, and frightened citizens were spending tens of millions of dollars annually hiring pest control companies to poison bats in buildings.
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October 22, 2016
Merlin’s Keynote Message at the 46th Annual Symposium of the North American Society for Bat
By Merlin Tuttle
“Merlin provided perspective on bat conservation progress in America over the 46 years since annual meetings
of North American bat researchers began in 1970. At that time most Americans had been led to believe that
bats were little more than disease carrying, mostly rabid vermin and frightened citizens were spending tens of
millions of dollars annually hiring pest control companies to poison bats in buildings.”
Our early research objectives included studies documenting that scare campaigns by those profiting from
human fear were themselves posing the most serious threats to public health. We put fear in perspective,
showing that bats, in fact, have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with people, documented
numerous values of bats, gradually overcame historic misperceptions and gained protection for thousands of
critical bat roosting habitats. As interest and appreciation of bats increased our group grew from 42 to over
400 participants, and we can now take great pride in many accomplishments.
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 these bats for human food. Despite large
numbers having been eaten, and having lived in close association with humans
throughout recorded history, they have caused no documented disease outbreaks. The
remarkable safety record of bats worldwide casts grave doubt on recent speculation of
their being dangerous carriers of deadly diseases.
Nevertheless, several alarming reversals are once again posing serious threats to bats and the ecosystems and
economies they protect. In North America alone, hundreds of thousands of bats are now being killed annually
at carelessly operated wind energy facilities that are rapidly expanding. Unfortunately, too many companies
are ignoring recent studies documenting how to dramatically reduce kills at minimal cost. Merlin stressed the
importance of partnering with concerned industry officials to rank companies based on their “green” records
in avoiding needless harm to bats. He reported willingness of “green energy” advisers to inform investors,
noting that through such collaboration, there is still hope for an improved future.
Merlin next focused on the extreme threat of white-nose syndrome (WNS), an introduced fungal disease that
has killed millions of cave-dwelling bats. Despite our best efforts it has spread rapidly from coast to coast. He
emphasized that it is now here to stay. It cannot be stopped or slowed, and we are unlikely to find a safe and
effectively applicable cure. There is no longer justification for disturbing bat hibernation sites, no matter how
well intended, just to check on WNS spread or impacts. Winter disturbance forces additional loss of already
depleted energy reserves and could become the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
The good news is that small, apparently resistant remnants of even the most seriously threatened species are
beginning to show signs of recovery. And given careful protection, there is hope for successful rebuilding of
resistant populations, as appears to have already occurred in Europe and Asia. The need for improved use of
non-invasive, active-season monitoring of status trends was also stressed.
Encouraging evidence indicates that even the little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus), one
of the species most decimated by WNS, is beginning to successfully reproduce and
rebuild apparently resistant populations, as appears to have already occurred in Europe
and Asia. It’s time to give these tiny remnants the best possible protection from winter
Merlin’s greatest concern focused on the alarmingly pervasive resurgence of greatly exaggerated speculation
about the potential for bats to serve as reservoirs for so-called “emerging diseases.” He emphasized the
exceptionally poor science backing these already widely accepted claims. There have been too many attempts
to prove rather than test hypotheses, as well as cases of misinterpreting isolated correlations as causation
while ignoring large amounts of contradictory evidence. He also showed examples of subsequently
discredited speculation, published in leading journals, warning of their potential to reverse decades of
conservation progress, not to mention the credibility of science itself. For additional detail regarding this
newly emerging threat to bats, visit our Exaggerated Disease Warning Resource Page.
He next emphasized the power of research documenting bat contributions to human well-being and the need
to communicate such findings effectively to the public at large. He reminded young colleagues that most of
the world’s more than 1,300 bat species have barely been studied beyond being taxonomically described and
predicted exceptional opportunities for exciting discoveries. He especially mentioned potential discoveries
enhancing pest control, ecoservices, disease prevention and human longevity.
“Finally, Merlin provided an example of the economic impact of restoring just one large bat colony in Thailand.
Guano production for fertilizer rose from $12,500 in 1981 to $132,000 annually by 2002 and local control of rice
pests is now valued at $300,000 annually. He challenged colleagues to become more actively engaged in
sharing their findings from human-relevant research beyond their immediate colleagues and offered free use
of his large photo collection in support of such efforts.”
Despite early public health warnings of high disease risks, especially rabies, just by
posting small signs asking visitors not to handle the bats, millions of tourists have
watched the spectacular emergences of over a million free-tailed bats from the Congress
Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas for more than 35 years without a single instance of
anyone contracting a disease from a bat. The now beloved and protected bats consume
tons of crop and yard pests nightly and bring millions of tourist dollars each summer.
Worldwide, bats have one of our planet’s finest safety records when it comes to living
safely with people.
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