Batman Forever: An October Slideshow

Veteran bat biologist and photographer Merlin Tuttle captures the stigmatized species in action. | All photos by Merlin Tuttle

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“A Philippine horseshoe bat (Rhinolophis philippinensis) portrait from Borneo. This bat ranges from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia in Southeast Asia to New Guinea and northeast Australia. Its spectacular nose-leaf and ears are part of an exceptionally sophisticated echolocation system. I intended for one front and two side flashes to fire, but the one on the left failed, resulting in this dramatic shot, taken with a 100mm, f/2.8 macro lens.”


“A young minor epauletted bat (Epomophorus labiatus minor) from Kenya. Its mother had reared it in my studio, and both were as tame as any pet. Any time I picked either one up, they expected a treat, making the nice expression unusually easy to capture. Understandably, bats don’t appreciate being held upside down for a human’s ‘right-side-up’ view! The photo entailed four flashes on stands, two in front and two behind, and a 100mm, f/2.8 lens with my standard black velveteen background.”


“A grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus). This portrait was taken in an unusual manner. Since even tame flying foxes can be difficult to coax into a smile while being held upside down, for this shot, I simply perched the bat in front of a black background and handed it small treats. I then shot in between when its wings weren’t interfering with my needs. Of course, flash lighting had to be reversed, since to look natural in our world, the dominant light always comes from above. Three flashes were used, one in front and two behind. Due to the bat’s large size, I used a 50mm, f/2.5 macro lens so I could remain close.”


“A Mariana flying fox (Pteropus mariannus) is pollinating a kapok tree on the island of Guam. Kapok, the source of World War II life preservers, is bat-pollinated worldwide. Flying foxes are dominant pollinators and seed dispersers on Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, but many, including this species, are endangered. This one was borrowed from the zoo in Guam and photographed in a colleague’s living room against a black background.

The difficult part was obtaining flowers from a huge kapok tree. We had to borrow a 40-foot extendable ladder and extend it from the top of a cliff to a flowering tree growing from below. The ladder barely reached the first branch, enabling me to climb across with a small saw and a long chord. As I reached for the next branch I inadvertently got my hand on a mildly poisonous brown tree snake, which fortunately dropped without biting. Climbing more carefully, I finally reached a flowering branch at a dizzying height, made worse due to having to cut the flowering branch at night so the flowers would open. After gently lowering it to the ground, we had to carry it slowly across the island in the back of a pickup.”


“A hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata) from Mexico. This species lives throughout most of Latin America but rarely causes problems for people or for livestock. It feeds mostly on the blood of birds. Unlike generally liked predators, such as lions and tigers, vampires just take a small amount of blood, allowing victims to go free. Fortunately, this bat didn’t require a bribe to gain its cooperation. It was just naturally a sweet-tempered individual. Yes, each bat has its own unique personality and IQ and understanding—which has often proven key to my photographic success. I used two flashes in front and two behind with a 100mm, f/2.8 lens on my camera.

Gentle handling, from the moment of capture, is key to gaining such bats’ cooperation. I almost never use gloves, meaning I’m not inadvertently provoking bats by pinching them. Like veterinarians, I am vaccinated against rabies in case of occasional defensive bites. However, I’ve never been protected against any of the so-called emerging diseases that have been sensationally speculated to come from bats. Such speculation has been highly successful in generating hundreds of millions of dollars in grants for otherwise difficult-to-justify viral witch hunts, focused mostly on bats who have few defenders. For anyone who doesn’t handle bats, the odds of harm are extremely remote!”


“A spotted bat (Euderma maculatum) in Utah. These spectacular bats live in cliff faces and are rarely seen, even by bat researchers, though they are found from western Mexico to Canada. They rely on low-frequency echolocation, inaudible to their moth prey, whose hearing is tuned to the higher frequencies used by most other bats. I mist-netted three as they drank at a desert water hole. Two refused to eat in captivity and had to be released. However, one was nicknamed Porky because he would follow me anywhere for another mealworm. His appetite was key to this inquisitive expression.

I obtained rocks fallen from a cliff where these bats roosted and built a clifflike set. The bat was allowed to enter a crevice, then was called, knowing he’d come out to get a mealworm. This photo was taken just before he received his reward. Three flashes, one back, one side, and one front, were used with a 50mm macro lens.”


“A big brown bat (Eptesicus fucus) portrait from Arizona. This species seldom cooperates for an ‘upside-down,’ hand-held photo, but this one did just fine after being bribed with a few mealworms while being held in the desired position. I used two flashes behind, one in front, with my 100mm macro lens.”


“A Lyle's flying fox (Pteropus lylei) roosting where it’s protected in a Buddhist temple’s courtyard in Thailand. Due to being in a protected area, I was able to approach, a few feet at a time, to within 40 feet, but it was midday in the bright tropical sun. I used a 70-300mm zoom lens at 300mm with an on-camera flash with a 3X flash extender. Even so, I had to wait for an hour for the right density cloud to pass over so I could balance my fill flash with the much brighter sun. By that time, my subject had gone to sleep. The bat’s alert expression came from me making a very soft squeak with my lips.”


“A northern ghost bat (Diclidurus albus) roosting in an American palm oil plantation in Costa Rica. This is a rarely seen species that is naturally white, not albino. I had to wait for some four hours with my camera on a sturdy tripod with a 300mm, f/2.8 lens (and 1.4X extender) pre-framed and focused on the bat, waiting for the sun to move just right for the best backlighting. A pair of flashes were mounted on flash stands, one on each side of my camera to partially fill the shadows. All was pre-tested prior to the long wait. When the sun reached the correct location, a breeze began blowing the bat’s perch, making focus and framing tricky. Thus, I shot a fairly large frame and cropped later. Luckily, the breeze caused the bat to open its eyes for a more interesting photo.”


“The Midas free-tailed bat (Mops midas) ranges from Saudi Arabia across most of Africa to Madagascar, roosting in narrow rock crevices, especially in cliff faces, as well as in hollow trees and buildings. It is a relatively large insect-eater with long, narrow wings for high-speed, relatively nonmaneuverable flight high above ground. For this portrait, I used my 100mm, f/2.8 macro lens with three flashes, one overhead and one on each side. A colleague caught two of these bats for me to photograph. The first immediately lost its temper and threw the equivalent of a tantrum. Portraits were impossible. After some 30 minutes of complete failure, I tried the second one, and without even a bribe, it cooperated perfectly. In my experience, most large free-tailed bat species have reminded me of gentle Saint Bernard dogs, but a few individuals appear to have hair-triggered tempers and are best left alone.”


“A cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea) is pollinating durian flowers in Thailand. Durian fruits sell for billions of dollars annually in Southeast Asia, but every flower must be pollinated by a bat to set fruit. These bats traditionally formed colonies of hundreds of thousands, in caves, but now are in alarming decline—often over-harvested for human consumption or killed during careless limestone extraction. This poses a direct threat to durian production, as well as to a variety of other important products.

To get this photo, we had to cut a flowering branch and bring it into my traveling studio, where I had earlier tamed two of these bats so they were no longer afraid of me. I often brought them honey-sweetened juice, so they looked forward to my approach. This photo was taken with my 24-105mm zoom lens and three flashes, one with the camera and one on each side of the flowers. Such bats normally bury their faces deep in the flowers almost immediately and for unpredictable lengths of time. They look up only for a split second as they are leaving, so many attempts are required to catch one looking up with pollen on its face.”


“This common noctule (Nyctulus noctula), an insect-eating species from Hong Kong, is widespread in Europe and Asia. It lives in small tree cavities in woodland areas. Quite gentle when not provoked, this one strenuously objected to being held upside down for his portrait. It took a bribe of more than 100 mealworms to calm him! I used my 100mm, f/2.8 macro lens and three flashes for this shot, one flash above and slightly behind, one on the far side, and one in front.”


“Lesser bamboo bats (Tylonycteris pachypus) are among the world's smallest mammals, weighing less than a U.S. nickel. They have flattened heads that facilitate rapid entry and exit from tiny beetle holes in bamboo. These bats emerge and enter with split-second timing that has rarely been documented. They range across most of Southeast Asia and adjacent islands.

For this photo, I first peered into the beetle hole with an endoscope to be sure it contained bats (just four). Then I spent three hours setting up an infrared beam in front of the hole and arranging three flashes, one on each side and one between two cameras in front. One camera had a 24-105mm zoom lens, the other a 70-300mm zoom lens. We knew we’d have no more than four shots, and we had an additional problem. My wife, Paula, and I were shooting with both cameras set on Bulb, and we feared the bats might emerge before it got dark enough for time exposures not to prematurely expose the bamboo. Triggering the cameras directly would have been too slow, meaning the beam had to trigger the flashes while at least one of the camera shutters was already open. Initially, we were forced to open shutters for no more than two seconds, so we rapidly alternated.

All the while, there was a frightening amount of thunder and lightning within less than a mile. Only three of the bats emerged. We got two, one perfect, and torrential rain didn’t strike till less than a minute after we had repacked our equipment in watertight containers. It was a very lucky night!”


“A Leach's long-tongued bat (Monophyllus redmoni) is about to pollinate a rare echo vine (Marcgravia evenia) in Cuba. This plant, long thought to be hummingbird-pollinated, was recently discovered to be pollinated by bats instead. Each inflorescence has a dish-shaped, upturned leaf just above the flowers, that reflects bat echolocation, guiding their approach like airport landing lights. These plants are widely scattered, and bats are their ideal pollinators because they travel longer distances and carry more pollen than insects or birds.

A colleague visited Cuba a year earlier to confirm flowering time and locations. However, when we arrived, no flowers were present where we planned to work. Furthermore, when we finally located flowering plants a four-hour drive away, a government official informed us our permits would allow us to visit but not to take pictures! Because I was desperate, a Cuban colleague cut a flowering stalk and additional vegetation for set building, then hand-held the cut stalks in water for a long and extremely rough drive back. Fortunately, despite high heat, nothing wilted, and we quickly built a set.

Our already tame bats kept trying to visit the flowers prematurely, so one of us had to guard the flower while the rest built the set. I used five flashes, two behind and two in front of the flower, and another aimed at the background, with my 24-105mm zoom lens on the camera. Two helpers stood to my sides, blocking the bats from approaching in a manner that would result in useless ‘butt shots.’”


“A Cuban flower bat (Phyllonycteris poeyi) pollinating a blue mahoe tree in Cuba. This is a much-valued ornamental and timber tree. Its flowers first open at night and are primarily bat-pollinated, but they remain open the following day and can also be pollinated by birds.

This bat hadn’t been tamed adequately, so my wife, Paula, and I had to wait till 5 A.M. for it to finally visit. We got just two good shots, one of which appeared in my 2014 article in National Geographic. I used my 24-105mm zoom lens and three flashes, two slightly behind, one on each side, and the third with the camera.”


“A Geoffroy's tailless bat (Anoura geoffroyi) is pollinating an old man cactus flower (Espostoa frutescens) in southern Ecuador. The woolly “fur” on this rare cactus absorbs echolocation, making its highly reflective flowers more conspicuous to approaching bats. Most remaining plants are located on sheer canyon walls where a single slip could mean a several-hundred-foot fall to certain death. Also, flowering is unpredictable and required two weeks of exhausting searches to find plants with buds. In my studio, we were able to document bat pollination for the first time. Two species of bats loved these flowers, and cuttings were replanted in a protected area. The photo was taken with my 24-205mm, f/4 lens using two flashes behind (mostly to sides), one in font, and two on background.”


“A little big-eared bat (Micronycteris megalotis) is catching a katydid in Trinidad. This bat was mist-netted in the forest, quickly learned to eat mealworms from my hand, and was then trained to come on call to my hand. Finally, it was trained to go wherever I pointed for a mealworm reward. Four nights after the bat’s capture, I was able to point to a katydid, its natural prey, and squeak to call the bat. I additionally had to place obstacles just outside my camera view, forcing the bat to approach at a suitable angle. I pre-framed and focused on the katydid, using a 24-105mm, f/4 zoom lens and three flashes, one in front and two behind the subject. No triggering device was used.”

As many among the world’s foremost wildlife photographers will attest, there’s a big difference between knowing how to take a good picture and knowing how to photograph a bat. “The trick is knowing the bats well enough to get them to cooperate in the right times and right places,” says bat ecologist, conservationist, and photographer Merlin Tuttle.

The plan for Tuttle wasn’t originally to become a bat photographer. In 1974, he completed a PhD thesis on the population ecology and migration of gray bats. Based on several academic papers he’d published, the National Geographic Society in 1977 tapped Tuttle to write a chapter on bats and their habitats for the first edition of the coffee-table book Wild Animals of North America. Once the book was in its layout stages, Nat Geo invited Tuttle into the office to check it out. The sight dismayed him.

“All the pictures were of snarling bats!” says Tuttle, who says that even sick bats rarely bite unless handled carelessly, but that because they’re so hard to capture on camera in flight, photographers often try to grab and hold them or rush up to them before they fly away. “The first thing it’ll do is snarl out of fear—just like when you corner a dog—and it thinks it’s about to be beaten.” So Tuttle explained to the editor that this was a “completely unnatural” misrepresentation—more bad PR for the underdog species so often unjustly blamed as dangerous spreaders of ebola, rabies, and other dangerous diseases, and of course, associated with morbidity and the netherworlds.

“Bats are really a lot more complex and intelligent than we give them credit for—they have great memories, form long-term friendships, adopt orphans, and share information,” explains Tuttle. “So I told him, if you tried to put pictures of snarling anything else in there, the public would complain.” Sympathizing with Tuttle, the editor offered to send a seasoned Nat Geo staff photographer out into the field with Tuttle to capture better bat pictures.

But after six weeks, that photographer—whose work Tuttle admired greatly—had only three shots that were usable for the book. “When he left, he left all his extra film with me to see if I could get some good pics, and I ended up being the second-most-used photographer in the book,” says Tuttle, who credits his then-nascent wildlife photography prowess to an adolescence spent practicing falconry. “You learn to develop trust and confidence with a hawk, and you train them to come on call for rewards—that clued me in as to what to do with my bats.” 

Soon thereafter, National Geographic’s photo editor asked Tuttle to travel to Mexico's Gulf of California to take a photo of a fishing bat catching or eating a fish. “I knew this would be a difficult shot, especially since they didn’t loan me any of their expensive, high-speed flashes. So before going down there I practiced dialing down flashes to shoot at a tiny fraction of normal power, and throwing socks through an infrared beam to see if I could stop the speed and get my light ratios right.” By the time he got down to Mexico, Tuttle had the camerawork figured out. But once he captured the bats for his shoot, he couldn’t get the gentle creatures to take their rewards: minnows he'd caught from where they’d been feeding. That’s when Tuttle learned that successful bat shoots require patience and establishing comfort and trust. It's why before getting out his camera, he sometimes hangs his subjects on his shirt and walks around with them—in that case for hours on end. “After they finally get used to me, they’ll take their rewards.”

"Yes, each bat has its own unique personality and IQ and understanding—which has often proven key to my photographic success."

Eventually, Tuttle came up with techniques for expediting the process, and he now does his shoots within a collapsible traveling studio he decorates to simulate various bat habitats. He even developed an ability to capture high-speed photography of bats flying through beams of light carrying fish and frogs and, before too long, became proficient in training bats to come on call to any specific location, which requires, he says, an ability to cluck softly to call them. “You develop a knack for picking the bats with the personalities that are gonna do what you want to do sometimes,” adds Tuttle, who over the past several decades has taken roughly 150,000 photos of more than 300 bat species, in every habitat where they exist worldwide—including the woolly bats living in Bornean pitcher plants, East African epauletted fruit bats in Kenya, Panamanian frog-eating bats, and nectar bats pollinating agave flowers in Oaxaca. Tuttle is quick to note that sometimes his subjects train him. “A tiny woolly bat that learned to eat mealworms from my hand, within 48 hours of being with me, figured out that all he had to do to coax another mealworm was to fly up and bump me in the nose.”

When not traveling the world in the name of bat conservation and photography, Tuttle can often be found taking pictures beneath his hometown’s bat hotspot—the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas. Still, he maintains that his skills are no better than those of other leading wildlife photographers. “I’ve just learned how to relate to bats and treat them well, and they return the favor. So, I’m able to show off some really magnificent animals who often are terribly persecuted.”

In 1982, Tuttle took his mission further by founding Bat Conservation International, an international NGO working to conserve the world’s bats and their habitats. More recently, he’s dedicated himself to Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, through which he not only raises funds and awareness for bats, but also allows anyone who agrees to help conserve bats to sign on as a “bat fan.” Bat fans agree to fight back against bad bat press; for instance, by organizing to write responses to editors and authors of published stories containing "exaggerated speculation" about how scary bats are. “This makes much more of a difference than just hearing complaints from a few scientists,” Tuttle explains. And they are allowed to download Tuttle’s photography for free, for use in teaching others how to appreciate bats as "safe and invaluable neighbors." He notes, “Those pictures don’t come easily, but too many other people’s pictures of snarling bats are a horrible threat to the future of bats. I’m devoted absolutely to conserving bats, and I know as a biologist that we need them badly.” Bats, after all, are pollinators, seed-spreaders, and pest-controllers, and function as “indicator species,” meaning changes in their populations indicate important changes in other aspects of biodiversity.

This October, Tuttle invites Sierra readers to click through some favorite photos from his long and storied career (captions contain his own explanations for how exactly each was captured)—and to sign on as bat fans. Additional details about how Tuttle photographs bats can be found here.