AUSTIN, Texas -- As the sun sets over Lady Bird lake on a warm summer night, a stream of shadows begins to emerge from beneath the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. The shadows dart and dance across the orange sky like insects silhouetted by a flame.
Tiffany Toronto, visiting family from her home in Maine, watched the display with her children Tuesday. "It's really a cool thing to watch them all fly out. You look at it and you think, 'Where are they?' And then they fly out all at once."
This scene plays out nightly during the summer in Austin. Millions of bats depart their daytime roosts within the structure of the bridge to consume nearly their body weight in insects every night. The bats, a tourist attraction and icon for the city, appear in public sculptures, on basketball jerseys and all over Austin souvenirs. Austin's bats even have their own festival that has drawn massive crowds in previous years.
But with recent media coverage pointing to bats as a possible origin of the new coronavirus, have attitudes changed towards the bats in Austin?
Austin's bat ambassadors hope not.
"These media stories are bound to do some harm," said Merlin Tuttle, a veteran bat biologist and the eponymous founder of Merlin Tuttle's Bat Conservation. But Tuttle has quieted public fears before.
When he first arrived in Austin in 1986, fear of contracting rabies from bats was spreading across the country. "Health officials told Austinites that the bats were rabid and dangerous," Tuttle said. "People signed petitions to have the bats are eradicated."
Like the rabies virus in years past, the suggested link between the new coronavirus and bats has put the animals at risk for "demonization, eviction, and slaughtering," Tuttle said in a recent Op-Ed in a science journal. But the link between bats and the virus may be more tenuous than what has been suggested.
"The closest related coronavirus is found in horseshoe bats, and that virus, as they pointed out in the media, was 96% genetically similar to the SARS-CoV-2, that's causing COVID-19," Tuttle said. "But we are 98% genetically identical to chimpanzees, and I don't know if anybody has trouble telling us from chimpanzees."
Tuttle and other bat conservationists worked tirelessly to overcome the rabies scare and educate the Austin public about the many benefits and the largely overstated concerns surrounding these nocturnal visitors.