To Know Bats Is to Love Them

Merlin Tuttle has spent a lifetime bringing bats out of the shadows and into the light.

Merlin Tuttle, the world's most famous bat biologist and booster, has devoted his life to studying, demystifying, and helping conserve bats.

He's also photographed them—a statement that doesn't begin to do justice to his work. Tuttle is to bats as Annie Leibovitz is to celebrities. If you've seen a great photograph of a bat, chances are Merlin Tuttle took it.

I got to know Tuttle while researching and writing the story he photographed for the March issue of National Geographic about tropical flowers that use acoustics to attract bat pollinators. (Read "Call of the Bloom" in National Geographic magazine.) He agreed to talk to me about his life with bats and why all of us, like him, should love them.

Merlin, you've been working with bats since you reached double digits, and now you're 72. Because of your conservation work you're probably the bat scientist best known to the English-speaking public. And I think you must be best known to the bats, too, considering how many bats you've captured and banded all over the world. How many, do you think?

It's safe to say that it's over a million, but I don't count. Before even completing my Ph.D. degree, I'd probably handled tens of thousands of gray bats. Then I led Smithsonian expeditions for two years, during which time we netted and trapped bats five nights a week. By now I must certainly be approaching a second million.

Yikes. A lot of people are afraid of bats. What's the scariest thing that's ever happened to you in your bat work?

So many scary things have happened to me that I don't know where to begin. When I was in high school, a drunk moonshiner at a bat cave in Tennessee stuck the barrel of a loaded shotgun in my gut and threatened to blow my blankety-blank head off. That was scary.

My early mentor, Dr. Charles Handley, and I were captured by communist guerrillas in a wild chase in the mountains in Venezuela. That was scary. And hiding in the jungle till two in the morning to escape an anticipated ambush by unfriendly Yanomami Indians in the Amazon was really scary, I must say.

Once, in Zimbabwe, I crouched for what seemed like all night under a rock ledge, waist deep in a river, to avoid a pride of lions above me while worrying about the possible approach of crocodiles from below. I had my camp shot up by Peruvians who mistook my associates and me for bandits. I've had to hold perfectly still in a narrow cave passage in Thailand to cede the right-of-way to a cobra.

Note that not one of these experiences involved fear of a bat. Bats are not scary!

How did you get started with bats?

In high school I lived near a cave in Tennessee where thousands of gray bats roosted. My books told me gray bats lived in the same cave year-round. But the bats I saw were showing up only in spring and fall. I concluded that they must be migratory. My parents were can-do people, and I always thought anybody, any scientist, would be happy to talk to me.

So my mother drove me up to the Smithsonian. We told the gal at the desk that we had some bat specimens we'd like to discuss with their mammalogist. Lo and behold, Dr. Charles Handley, who was then the head of the mammal division, came down to greet us. He was impressed with my study skins and field notes, so he took us around to meet the other staff and gave us a grand tour of the bat collections. They ended up arming me with several thousand bat bands—numbered metal rings that identify individual bats—and sent me home to start figuring out if I could see where the gray bats went.

Now, this turned out to be one of the luckiest strokes that a kid or a scientist ever had. Within a month of banding those bats I inadvertently discovered them a hundred miles north in a different cave—a cave that traps cold air and maintains a stable, cold temperature year-round that bats can hibernate in. So I documented that gray bats were migratory, in contrast to what scientists believed at the time.

You went on to get your Ph.D. working with gray bats and continued your research. How did you become a bat photographer?

National Geographic asked me to write the bat chapter in their book Wild Animals of North America. In 1978, I think that was. So I wrote the chapter, and it was very strongly oriented toward debunking people's unfounded fear of bats and showing that bats play a valuable role as eaters of insects and pollinators of crops.

All well and good until National Geographic asked me to come to D.C. to look at the book layout. I was appalled. All the pictures showed tormented, snarling bats, and they looked horrible. I mean, no wonder people feared bats! You take a bat whose head is maybe the size of your thumbnail, blow his picture up to full-page size, and he's snarling in self-defense with his mouth open—he looks like a little saber-toothed tiger on attack. That's all people saw of bats in those days.

I said, "My god, one of those pictures can undo everything I ever said about a bat." The editor was sympathetic. He sent a staff photographer named Bates Littlehales out with me for six weeks. The whole time Bates and I were in the field, the poor man could hardly go to the john without me asking how to photograph bats.

Bates was a neat guy who didn't mind mentoring me. When he left, he gave me his remaining film and said, "Well, now you know everything I know about photographing bats. I can see how much depends on knowing the bats. Maybe you can shoot some additional pictures."

How do you train a bat to go to a flower in front of the camera? Or for that matter, to scoop a fish out of an artificial pond you've created? Especially when an explosion of blinding light accompanies every click of the camera?

Although I often have trained bats to come to my hand on call to facilitate feeding them and to help them overcome their fear of me, I don't have to train them to do what comes naturally, like visiting a bat-adapted flower or catching a fish. They quickly learn to ignore my camera and flashes.

Our story was specifically about nectar-drinking bats and their co-evolution with certain species of flowering plants. Is there anything special or different about these little nectar bats in terms of temperament or behavior?

The only thing really unique about these bats seems to be their almost universal lack of fear of humans. One of the nectar bats we photographed in Costa Rica, after being fed honey-water from a syringe just once, immediately began to follow my colleague, the bat scientist Ralph Simon, around, attempting to land on his hand for additional treats.

I know you have a policy of never showing bats with their mouths open, looking scary and toothy—which is not easy when you have to hold them in your hand to get their portrait. How do you get them to smile like that?

When I take a bat's portrait, from its point of view I'm holding it upside down, and that's one of the surest ways to provoke that defensive snarl traditionally seen in close-up photos of bats. But a bribe of a bat's favorite food nearly always improves its disposition. Mealworms are often a favorite of insect-eating bats. A reward for a nectar bat would be honey-water.

Another thing I loved hearing in the field is that you would groom the little darlings between photos so they'd look their best, which is utterly sweet. In fact, I recall a mention of shampoo...

I don't know how much I want to say about that!

But it's true that I used to carry baby shampoo in my camera bag so it wouldn't sting their eyes when I washed them.

Almost any bat I catch is going to be beautifully clean, with silky, spick-and-span fur. But not infrequently I'll have to hold a bat in a cloth bag while I transport it, and it may get its fur soiled in that process. I would never want to show a bat that was dirty because too many people already think bats are dirty, and that's precisely the kind of erroneous thinking I'm trying to change. So if a bat were looking grubby on rare occasion, I would get out my baby shampoo and a small blow dryer to put it back to normal. Bats don't love being shampooed, but they get through it!

How did you move from research to photography and conservation? It's not a move a lot of scientists make.

It began as I was conducting my Ph.D. research. I was horrified to find time and again colonies of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of gray bats that had been deliberately burned or otherwise destroyed by people thinking they were doing us all a favor by killing rabid animals. I felt an obligation to show gray bats to cave owners. I would explain how gentle and beneficial the bats were, and point out the wings of potato beetles and other pests in the bats' droppings. Many cave owners went from killing bats to protecting them. Such experiences convinced me that a great deal of good could be accomplished through simple education.

So wherever I went I couldn't resist helping people understand and appreciate bats. It gradually snowballed till I was nearly overwhelmed by requests for advice. Early in my career, people were bombarded by news stories claiming that most bats were rabid and that they would attack people and pets. They were worried about bats in their attics and desperate to know the right thing to do. I began to write articles and give talks setting the record straight. My photography was an invaluable tool, shining a light on these marvelous creatures people had never really seen.

Finally one day after speaking to a women's club about bats, a lady suggested I should found a nonprofit organization for bats so people like her could help. So I took her suggestion and founded Bat Conservation International. When I decided to try it, I had no idea that this would take over my entire life. Frankly, I was very happy with my full-time research position at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Merlin, you've devoted more than 50 years of your life to helping people understand and appreciate bats. How do you see the state of the world's bats today?

Bats face a wide variety of threats. In much of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, people simply eat too many of them. And all over the world, wind turbines are carelessly killing countless thousands of bats, though growing numbers of wind power companies are cooperating with conservationists.

But the most devastating threat of all is deliberate killing of large colonies by humans who needlessly fear being attacked or harmed by bats.

A new threat today comes from careless reporting of virological discoveries. Epidemiologists are, of course, scouring the Earth for sources of disease. And it is perfectly appropriate to warn people not to carelessly handle any unfamiliar animal. But they often don't make an adequate effort to put their findings into perspective. Yes, they're finding new, unknown-to-science viruses in bats. But that's simply because they are looking for them in bats.

Since the vast majority of the world's viruses have yet to be discovered, new ones could just as easily be found almost anywhere else, even on our own bodies. Most are benign or even beneficial. Reporting new viruses from bats, while speculating that some are related to rare kinds that can kill humans, without putting findings in perspective, has fueled a recent resurgence of scary media stories and is doing a great disservice to conservation and public health.

What too often goes without mention is the fact that indeed bats have an exceptionally good record of living safely with humans, that regardless of viruses discovered, actual transmission from bats to humans is exceedingly rare. Our own pet dogs are many times more dangerous!

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