The Much-Maligned Bat Finds a Champion in Mammalogist Merlin Tuttle

updated 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Stationed at the mouth of the world's largest bat cave in Bracken, Texas, mammalogist Merlin Tuttle gazes up at an amazing sight. Shortly after sunset, some 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats burst from their subterranean roost. They rise into the Texas sky, a swirling vortex of fluttering membrane wings, then travel as far as 50 miles for a night of foraging. "Imagine," says Dr. Tuttle of the bats who spew forth for two hours, fly at up to 11,000 feet and at speeds of up to 60 mph. "They cover thousands of square miles a night and destroy a quarter million pounds of insects, yet man seems bent on destroying them."

Face it, Dr. Tuttle: Thanks to legends like Dracula, bats are thought of as rabies-carrying, blood-sucking creatures, the stuff of nightmares. As head of the Austin-based Bat Conservation International, Tuttle, 44, is out to tackle the bat's public relations problems. "Just because some bats aren't cute and cuddly," he says, "is no reason to think they are dangerous." Bats are timid mammals who never bite humans unless threatened. "The odds that you will ever be harmed by a bat," says Tuttle, "are on a par with the odds that you will be run over in bed by a Mack truck at 3:00 on Sunday morning."

Contrary to popular belief, bats are not blind; indeed, their night vision is at least as good as man's. Bats can carry rabies, although Tuttle knows of only 10 people who have died from bat-induced rabies in the last 40 years. At the same time, he cautions people against handling bats because any bat docile enough to be picked up is probably sick. As for blood-sucking, while it is true that vampire bats subsist solely on the blood of wild animals, these bats exist only in Latin America, and they are just one of more than a thousand species that inhabit every part of the globe except the polar regions.

Bats are part of the environment's system of checks and balances. Not only do they devour bugs that annoy man and devastate crops, but the fruit-eating species also disperse seeds, pollinating trees and shrubs. All bats excrete guano, which makes rich fertilizer. Even so, man has been destroying bat populations so rapidly that some species, such as the Southeastern U.S. grey bat, have become seriously endangered. Ignorant of their value, some cave owners and tropical fruit growers exterminate the creatures by the millions with pesticides and dynamite.

Tuttle has studied zoology since he was a 9-year-old boy in California. He headed his first expedition—a Smithsonian Institution foray into the Venezuelan jungles—in 1965, right after graduating from Andrews University in Michigan. After completing his doctorate at the University of Kansas, Tuttle became concerned about bat conservation when he learned that grey-bat caves he had studied for his dissertation had been destroyed. Tuttle appealed to conservation groups for help. He got none. And so, "out of sheer desperation," Tuttle founded Bat Conservation International in 1982. BCI now has 1,000 members in 22 countries. Last year Tuttle resigned his post as curator of mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum to work full-time on BCI, now headquartered in Austin at the University of Texas, where Tuttle is a research associate.

Determined to improve the bat's image in America, Tuttle has embarked on a propaganda mission to remind people—via lectures, brochures and a TV documentary—that bats are an important part of the environment. They are held in high esteem in the Orient and other countries, where they are regarded as symbols of fertility and happiness. The Bacardi Rum Company, which was started in Cuba 124 years ago and has long used the bat as its trademark insignia, recently donated $10,000 to the BCI coffers. With more contributions like that, Tuttle may just succeed in proving that the bat's bad rep is a bum rap.

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