Blood-sucking villains. Spooky specters of the night. Our views of bats are often based more on fiction than fact. Enter National Geographic Explorer at Large Rodrigo Medellín, aka the Bat Man of Mexico. For decades he’s waged a charm offensive to show the world how much we need bats, from the clothes we wear to a sip of tequila at the end of a long day. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic causes even more harmful bat myths, the world must once again realize that bats may not be the hero everyone wants—but they’re the hero we need.
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JACOB PINTER (PRODUCER): Amy! Hey, how’s it going?
AMY BRIGGS (HOST): Eh, it’s going all right. How are you?
PINTER: Oh, you know, hanging in. So how’s the History magazine these days?
BRIGGS: It’s bloody, Jacob, very bloody.
PINTER: Ew. OK. Tell me not too much more but a little bit more.
BRIGGS: Vampires, Jacob. We’re working on a story about vampires and the origins of the Dracula story.
PINTER: That sounds spooky. OK. What have you found?
BRIGGS: OK, so you know Count Dracula, right?
BRIGGS: It’s Bram Stoker’s novel, and we’re looking into the source material for it. So it turns out Count Dracula is based in part on an actual guy.
BRIGGS: He’s known as Vlad Țepeș, or as his enemies called him, Vlad the Impaler.
PINTER: Ooh, OK.
BRIGGS: So he ruled back in the 1400s in what is now Romania. And so he dies, and his detractors write about how brutal the guy was. And, you know, they’re not really lying, like, Vlad was pretty brutal. Like, he was a ruthless enemy. He actually did impale a bunch of people on big, pointy spikes to kill them. I mean, not somebody you wanted to tangle with.
BRIGGS: So, years later, Bram Stoker—he’s researching a new novel. He’s writing about a vampire. And so he goes to Romania, and he’s doing some research and comes across this name, Dracula, which is a fabulous name for a vampire. It means “son of the dragon.” And so he bases his Count Dracula character in part on Vlad. So, aside from a few details, Stoker makes up the rest. Vlad isn’t nocturnal, Vlad wasn’t sucking people’s blood. He wasn’t a vampire, and he definitely did not turn into a bat.
PINTER: Hmm. Do we know if he liked garlic?
BRIGGS: I think the jury is out on garlic. I think they were too busy writing about the impaling to worry about the culinary thing, but I’ll look into it.
PINTER: Well, I’ll tell you, Amy, what I’ve learned is that that bat part has really stuck. I’ve been working on a story about bats, and I’ve got to tell you, they have a lot of baggage. I mean for hundreds of years, people have seen bats as blood suckers and disease carriers—just generally bad luck. I mean—
BRIGGS: Well, I mean—aren’t they?
PINTER: Well here’s the thing. I met this scientist named Rodrigo Medellín. And he’s really helped me understand why bats are our friends, and they help make a lot of good things possible, things that are in our life every single day. And they also occupy this kind of magical and mysterious place in our minds, and it’s that world that Rodrigo really wants to bring us into.
BRIGGS: Yeah, but aren’t there vampires there?
PINTER: Mm, no vampires.
BRIGGS: All right—
PINTER: I’m going to make it worth your while, I promise.
BRIGGS: OK. As long as it’s safe, I’m ready to go with you.
PINTER: All right, cool.
So it’s probably not a surprise that a bat researcher spends a lot of time in caves. But what is a surprise—at least to me—is how much those caves reinvigorate Rodrigo Medellín.
RODRIGO MEDELLÍN (ECOLOGIST): It's the most amazing feeling on Earth. I always use the opportunity to be in a cave to reconnect with myself.
PINTER: They’re like his own private portal to some other world. When Rodrigo goes into these caves, he’s often with other people, like students. But he finds ways to have the cave all to himself.
MEDELLÍN: Once we're done with the work, et cetera, I send everyone out of the cave, and I remain behind—just enjoying, just soaking in the peace, the silence, the tranquility in an absolute dark environment.
PINTER: Now, I myself don’t go into caves. I think they’re pretty scary. But Rodrigo says when you turn off your flashlight, the darkness in there is so profound, it becomes beautiful in its own way.
MEDELLÍN: It's like you're shrouded in felt—in, like, a beautiful, silky feeling that just hugs you and welcomes you to an amazing place in which you—usually as a human being, you're not considering as welcoming for you.
PINTER: In fact, with nothing to see, your body puts your other senses on high alert. Your nose picks up the smell of bats, especially their guano. And your ears are busy too.
MEDELLÍN: There's the flight of the bats flying around you occasionally, but there's also the squealing of the bats themselves when they are in their niches, on the walls, et cetera.
PINTER: I mean, with all that going on, it must be hard to hear yourself think.
MEDELLÍN: Well, the first time that I take students into a cave, yes, there's so many emotions and so many questions that they have that it's very, very difficult to really, you know, assume a pose of tranquility and peace. But once you've done it for decades—oh my God, I'm looking forward to the next time I'm going to be in a cave.
PINTER: Rodrigo is on a quest to make people see bats the same way he does: with a sense of wonder and awe. I mean, think about it: they’re the only mammal that can fly, which is pretty incredible. And there are more than 1,400 different bat species, which makes them one of the most diverse types of mammals.
But the deck is stacked against them. Hundreds of years of mythmaking has painted bats as spooky, blood-sucking, disease-carrying villains.
MEDELLÍN: There's many animals that have a negative public image, from snakes to spiders to scorpions to sharks to bats. None of those animals do more for your everyday life quality than bats.
PINTER: Today, many species of bats are at the brink of extinction. And a world without bats could have major ripple effects for the clothes you’re wearing right now, for the food on your table, and even for the cocktail you sip at the end of a long day. Put it this way: Bats may not be the hero everyone wants, but right now, they’re the hero we need.
I’m Jacob Pinter, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week: the man on a mission to change how we see bats. One product that relies on bats is tequila. We’ll explain how Rodrigo convinced skeptical tequila producers to team up with him. And come on, who wants to live in a world with no tequila? Plus, why COVID-19 misinformation is putting bats in danger and how Rodrigo is setting the record straight.
More after this.
So I have to fess up that for the longest time, my knowledge of bats started—and basically ended—with Halloween. I mean, bats are spooky, right? End of story. I guess I assumed that even studying bats was kind of a creepy endeavor. It turns out, at least according to Rodrigo Medellin, I was totally wrong.
MEDELLÍN: I am a professor of ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and I'm lucky enough to be one of the happiest people I know.
PINTER: Today Rodrigo is a National Geographic Explorer at Large. He’s been studying bats and evangelizing for them for decades. He’s even picked up the nickname “the Bat Man of Mexico,” which I guess is inevitable if you study bats long enough. But just like a comic book hero, Rodrigo’s journey started with a mythical origin story.
MEDELLÍN: I started with an interest on animals from a very, very early age. I mean, my first word was not mama or dada or doo-doo. My first word was “flamingo.” And my mom—
PINTER: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait—flamingo?
MEDELLÍN: Flamingo, yeah. I mean, I said—my mom reflected it in my baby book saying, Well little Rodrigo said his first word today. He was looking at the book with pictures of animals, and he was pointing at a flamingo and he said ganglingo or something like that.
PINTER: I mean, I’ve got to say, if I was—if my kid did that, I would be very impressed. Don't get me wrong. I think I'd also be a little bit hurt that they didn't want to say my name first.
MEDELLÍN: And the thought would also cross your mind that there's something really weird with your kid. I mean, I'm sorry, but it is true.
PINTER: Now, little Rodrigo would just inhale books about wildlife—anything he could get his hands on, but especially mammals. So one day, when he’s 11 years old, he’s watching this Mexican game show, The 64,000 Peso Grand Prize. Rodrigo turns to his mom and says, You know, if I could get on this show and they asked me questions about mammals, I think I could win.
MEDELLÍN: And my mom says, No, no, no, you go play. You're 11 years old. You're not supposed to be a know-it-all about mammals. No, no, no. Go play. I insisted and insisted and insisted, and my mom finally took me to the producers.
PINTER: Now, to be clear, this was a game show for adults. The producers completely dismissed Rodrigo. They told him and his mom, Look, this isn’t some kind of parlor game, and we’re just not interested. So Rodrigo’s mom threw down the gauntlet.
MEDELLÍN: And my mom said, Well, ask the kid a question if you think that he doesn't know. So they pulled a book and they started asking questions about mammals.
PINTER: And 11-year-old Rodrigo nailed the pop quiz.
MEDELLÍN: And soon enough they said, Well, congratulations, because you're going to be the first kid in the show.
PINTER: So how it'd go?
MEDELLÍN: It went really well. But no, I'm sorry to disappoint you: I did not win the 64,000 peso prize.
MEDELLÍN: I was going for 32,000 pesos. And that is the question that I did not answer. But my God, did I ever win a prize.
PINTER: Now, this was back in the days when there were only, like, three TV channels and no Netflix. So a ton of people were watching Rodrigo, including the most influential mammal researcher in Mexico, who was apparently pretty impressed. He dialed the TV station and asked for Rodrigo’s phone number.
MEDELLÍN: He called me [at] home, and he said, Listen, if you want to continue learning about mammals, why don't you come over to the University of Mexico—the Institute of Biology—and we will take you to the field and we will show you mammals for real so that you can continue learning about them.
PINTER: That’s when Rodrigo started using his superpowers for good. Once he got hooked on bats, he realized they’re victims of a big misunderstanding. Bats have a lot of things going for them, like the fact that they fly and use echolocation, or the fact there’s so many different species.
And then there are more practical benefits. Take just one bat species as an example: the Mexican free-tailed bat. There are tens of millions of them in Mexico alone, and even more in the U.S. And they love to eat insects.
MEDELLÍN: Each million of those bats destroys 10 tons of insects every night. So just imagine what would happen if we lose those bats overnight. Well, in a few months, we're not going to have any crops because the insects are going to be accumulating, and accumulating, and accumulating. They're going to eat up all of our crops.
PINTER: Rodrigo says corn, cotton, coffee—they all rely on bats to keep insect numbers down. Plus, bats also spread seeds and pollinate some flowering plants. So a healthy bat population means fewer insects and more fruit and flowers.
Sounds pretty good, right? Well, this is where the misunderstanding comes in. Rodrigo says you can trace our fear of bats back to one moment a little more than 500 years ago. It was when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes landed on the shores of what’s now Mexico.
MEDELLÍN: And one of his scribes, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, notices that the first night that they spend on the coast of Mexico, he saw these flying little animals that come out at night that land on the horses or on the soldiers and bite them to feed on their blood.
PINTER: These were vampire bats. They’re native only to the Americas, so the Spaniards had never seen them. And they do feed on blood—not human blood, except in extremely rare cases—mostly cows. But Rodrigo says that was enough for our minds to start running.
MEDELLÍN: And you know that blood is a material that spikes our imagination. You know, an animal that is feeding on that sacred liquid is automatically enshrouded in a sea of mystery. And our imagination just takes off, and then we start linking them with processes that are really not true at all.
PINTER: Even though just three species of bats drink blood—and there are well over a thousand species that don’t—Cortes’s account made a connection in Western culture between bats and blood-sucking. So that was the first thing. The second happened a few hundred years later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. An Irish lad named Bram Stoker was cooking up the vampire story we know as Dracula.
MEDELLÍN: Turns out that Dracula, Bram Stoker's vampire, had this problem that he needed to travel very long distances in a very—very fast, right? So Bram Stoker stumbles upon this vampire bat of the New World, and he immediately thinks, Oh, I know what my vampire will do. He will turn into a bat, fly all of this distance, then become another human being again and then bite the girl for her blood.
PINTER: And then people run around saying, I vant to suck your blood, and—you know.
MEDELLÍN: And then it stuck, and then the public image of bats came tumbling down like crazy. And it created a nightmare for all of us bat biologists in the world. We have been united to combat, to counter that negative image.
PINTER: That negative image has real-world consequences. It encourages people to hurt bats. And on a bigger level, it puts whole species of bats in danger. The good news is that Rodrigo and other bat scientists have ways of fighting back.
MEDELLÍN: And what could I tell you as a Mexican about tequila, you know?
PINTER: Coming up: how tequila helped rescue an endangered bat species. Salud. That’s after the break.
For about 12 million years, Mother Nature fine-tuned a process to grow agave, the plant that’s fermented to make tequila. Agaves are a type of succulent. They have spiky leaves fanning out kind of in a spiral. Each agave plant waits its entire life for one single reproductive event, when a tall flower sprouts up out of the middle of the plant. That flower is dinner for bats, especially one species called the lesser long-nosed bat—which love to eat agave nectar.
MEDELLÍN: They attract the bats to come and lick that nectar and in the process be completely covered with their pollen that they are going to carry to the next agave, and the next agave, and the next agave.
PINTER: But that process that took millions of years to perfect? Humans threw it out of whack.
As people began commercially farming agave for tequila production, they started to cut corners.
They didn’t want to wait years for agave plants to flower naturally. So they cloned agave plants. This was cheaper and easier, but it came with a cost. One night in the 1990s, Rodrigo Medellin was hanging out with some other scientists.
MEDELLÍN: And we were sipping tequila. What else, right? And then we started talking about how there was a complete disconnect between the tequila that we were sipping and the bats that are responsible for that tequila.
PINTER: In the ‘90s, the lesser long-nosed bat was on the endangered species list. And all of the agave cloning was considered a factor, because it takes away the bats’ food. Plus, Rodrigo thought the cloning was also bad for the tequila industry. Natural reproduction creates genetic diversity. But with clones, every single plant shares the same DNA.
MEDELLIN: One disease that hits one plant, and all of your plants are going to be sick because they're all the same. They're exactly the same. So all it takes is for one disease to hit one plant, and you'll be doomed.
PINTER: So Rodrigo approached Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council. He proposed a plan that he thought was a pretty good one. He wanted to allow more natural agave reproduction. He argued it would be good for the bats and good for tequila. So everybody wins.
MEDELLÍN: And I showed them pictures, et cetera, and they said, Wow, that's a fantastic story. Thank you very much for telling us. And I suggested a number of measures there, and they said, “Well, thank you very much for coming, Dr. Medellín. That was fascinating. Goodbye!” That was the end of it.
PINTER: Yeah. He says they didn’t really want to hear it. But Rodrigo and some other scientists were getting pretty concerned that a catastrophic blight could wipe out agaves. So Rodrigo went back to the tequila council.
MEDELLIN: And they again said, “Wow, thank you very much for coming. Fascinating stuff. Bye!”
PINTER: I hope they at least gave you, like, a bottle of tequila for the road, for your trouble.
MEDELLIN: Not even. Not even!
PINTER: And then it happened. Rodrigo says around 2010 and 2011, a disease slammed agave crops: a double-whammy of fungus and bacteria. And just like he had warned, it was the big one.
MEDELLÍN: And I swear, Jacob, it was not me. I didn't put it in there. It wasn't me, right? But then they reach out and they say, Oh my God, what was that idea about the bats and the flowers and the pollen that you were saying? I said, Well, you're late, but let's see what we can do.
PINTER: Now that he finally had the ear of some tequila producers, Rodrigo explained his plan. Farmers would manage 95 percent of their crops exactly the same as before. But the last five percent would be set aside for bats to pollinate naturally, which gives the agaves more genetic diversity, and it gives the bats more food.
MEDELLÍN: And I explained to them what they needed to do to allow five percent of agaves to flower and harvest the remaining 95 percent. And that will be their safety passage for the next generations of agaves. And they immediately said, “Wow, that makes all the sense in the world. Why didn't we do this before?”
PINTER: So correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like your sales pitch to the tequila producers is almost like setting up a savings account. Like, you put this five percent aside. This is agave that you can't, I guess, make profit from now, but it keeps your long-term success looking better.
MEDELLÍN: Exactly. It's an insurance policy.
PINTER: In 2016 Rodrigo created a pilot program that certified brands that follow these rules. Today those labels have little logos showing they’re officially “bat-friendly tequila.” Around the same time Rodrigo was starting the program, the bat world got great news. Partly because of Rodrigo’s work, in 2015 Mexico removed the lesser long-nosed bat from its endangered species list. It was the first Mexican mammal ever to make that kind of improvement. So there were signs that bat conservation was working.
But last year, Rodrigo ran into his biggest challenge yet: the coronavirus. Now, I want to be really clear here. When it comes to the origins of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, there’s still a lot we just don’t know. You may remember that from the beginning of the pandemic, bats have been blamed as a possible carrier of the virus. And scientists are still investigating whether bats were the source of the virus. Rodrigo says, it is true that bats naturally carry some coronaviruses.
MEDELLÍN: But there's many other groups of mammals and even birds that have other coronaviruses, so you cannot say that bats gave us COVID.
PINTER: So far, nobody has pinpointed the exact source of this coronavirus. And, regardless, you won’t get COVID just from coming into contact with a bat. But some misinformation claimed bats could give people COVID. Even though it was wrong, that blame game has had real and devastating effects on bats all over the world. In Indonesia, the government killed hundreds of bats, supposedly for public safety. In Rwanda, government officials sprayed bat colonies with a fire hose. And Rodrigo? He followed it all.
MEDELLÍN: I don't think I have ever worked harder than in the past year and a half trying precisely to defuse the unfounded accusations against bats. And of course, when you see that people are killing bats because of some scientists saying that bats gave us this, it's not fair, Jacob.
PINTER: So, as far as what you and I can do, Rodrigo says it’s pretty simple: Be a bat defender. You can go the extra mile by putting up a bat house in your yard. Or, for starters, just spread the word.
MEDELLÍN: Talk to your neighbor, talk to your friends, talk to your family. Talk to the office people about bats and about what you've learned in this podcast.
PINTER: Rodrigo says that you can help out in your own area too. Find out who’s conserving bats in your neighborhood. And maybe even visit a bat cave. You might just surprise yourself and like it more than you think.
MEDELLÍN: It's such a natural development, it’s such a natural process to become at home, at peace in a cave. Because remember, Jacob, that we as human beings—only 10,000 years ago, only 20, 50,000, 100,000 years ago—we were living in caves. So caves are our natural home. And what I'm doing is just going back home. That's what I'm doing.
PINTER: If you’re ready to learn more about bats and be a bat defender—well, we’ve got you covered. Check out more of Rodrigo’s work, including a short documentary that follows Rodrigo as he looks for a rare species of vampire bat inside an ancient Mayan ruin. There’s a link in our show notes, and you can also find more facts and figures about bats. There’s so much variety. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat—weighs less than a penny. And on the other? Flying foxes have a six-foot wingspan! Also, we have a fun video breaking down how Dracula created some of those damaging myths about bats. And you can read more about why it’s so tricky to nail down the origins of COVID-19. Plus, for subscribers, journey into one of the largest and wildest caves in the world, in Borneo. It has caverns so enormous that a jetliner could fit comfortably inside, and it’s home to millions of bats.
That’s in the show notes, right there in your podcast app. Now, if you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate us and review us in your podcast app, and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Ilana Strauss, Brian Gutierrez, Marcy Thompson, Bianca Martin, and me, Jacob Pinter. Laura Sim also helped produce this one. Laura, best of luck on your next adventure.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Our senior producer is Carla Wills. Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan. Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer. Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music, and he sound-designed and engineered this episode.
The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world and funds the work of National Geographic Explorer at Large Rodrigo Medellín.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
And I’m Jacob Pinter. Thanks for listening. We’ll see ya next time.
See how Rodrigo uses a multi-pronged approach—involving field research, conservation, and tequila—to help protect bats.
In a Nat Geo short film, Rodrigo ventures into an ancient Mayan ruin to find two rare species of vampire bat.
Curious about the connection between bats and Covid-19? Explore why it’s so tricky to trace the disease’s origins.
Learn more about bats: They can be found nearly everywhere on Earth and range in size from lighter than a penny to a six-foot wingspan.
Why do bats get a bad rap? See how Spanish conquistadors and Dracula convinced us bats are more fright than friend.
Bat myths have real-world consequences. In Mauritius, a government campaign culled tens of thousands of endangered fruit bats.
For more bat info, follow Rodrigo on Instagram @batmanmedellin
And for paid subscribers:
Step inside Borneo’s limestone caves, some of the largest and wildest on Earth—and home to millions of bats.
If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.
The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.