Written by RTPI associate and bat enthusiast Jonathan Townsend
Merlin Tuttle has been a driving force in bat conservation for decades, and has been studying them since he was 12 years old. In addition to his biological studies he is one of the world’s preeminent bat photographers, and to date has photographed hundreds of species on every continent in which bats are found – including all 46 species of North American bat. Over the years he has authored and collaborated on dozens of scientific papers, has had several articles in National Geographic, and has published two books and filmed a documentary on bat biodiversity. Seeing an urgent need to conserve bat species and alter negative public perception of these incredible animals, he started Bat Conservation International (BCI) in 1982. Since his retirement from that organization he started a new group, Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, which is dedicated to correcting exaggerated disease claims about bats that have been popping up over the last few years. Despite the massive ecological and agricultural benefits from the over 1300 species of insect eating, pollinating, and seed dispersing bats, there have been many grossly exaggerated claims of bats as agents of disease. According to Mr. Tuttle, bats are intelligent, sophisticated, and gentle creatures; and one is more likely to get sick from our domestic canine companions than to catch a disease from a bat. In his 55 years of handling bats, and crawling through their caves and roosts, Tuttle has never contracted a disease, or been attacked. In fact, he has found them to be easily trained, pleasant animals to work with – indeed he has faced more danger from human interlopers than from his research subjects!
His recent memoir, “The Secret Lives of Bats”, is an absolutely fascinating glimpse into a life dedicated to studying one of the most unique and diverse groups of organisms on the planet. Mr. Tuttle began studying bats as a youth in Tennessee, exploring caves in search of the grey bat (Myotis grisescens), a species that at the time was expected to go extinct. Due in part to his research and BCI’s conservation efforts, this species has recovered, now more than two million more grey bats exist than were counted back then. Tuttle’s book is filled with similar success stories, like that of Bracken Cave, located in Austin, TX. Bracken Cave is home to around ten million Brazilian Free Tailed (Tadarida brasiliensis) bats, currently the largest known bat colony on the planet. Their evening foraging flights can be seen on Doppler radar, and each bat helps control agricultural insect pests through direct predation as well as by consuming gravid females – multiplying their impact by a factor of up to 1,000. BCI has worked for years to protect the cave, and recently was able to purchase the property and protect the surrounding area from development into a housing complex. On another research project, he discovered that the Fringe-lipped bat (Trachops cirrhosus) specializes in hunting frogs, and can focus in on their calls as well as echolocate, making it one of the few creatures on the planet that can hear ultrasound as well as normal frequencies – just one example of the astounding diversity found in bat species.
Mr. Tuttle’s memoir has stories from his research around the globe, and includes dozens of incredible color photographs that illustrate how diverse and undeniably gorgeous bats are. The book is filled with adventurous, often hair raising accounts, of his work in caves, deserts, jungles, and everywhere in between. He has navigated stormy, dangerous waters to reach out of the way study sites, faced down bandits and risked trampling from elephants in Kenya, and negotiated with moonshiners in Appalachia. At one point, he even enlisted the help of nudists on a deserted island near Alaska, all in the name of bat conservation. The book is perfect for anyone interested in learning more about bats, from budding bat biologists seeking inspiration to experts in the field, or someone merely interested in a memoir filled with danger and passion for one’s life work. In any event, bats worldwide owe a great deal to this man, as do the humans that benefit from them – whether they realize it or not.
For more information about Merlin Tuttle and his work with these amazing creatures, visit http://www.merlintuttle.com/