During our four-year study period, starting in September 2017, we will be addressing the following:

  • The loss of bat winter habitat and change in bat population structure and dynamics over time
  • The movement and foraging ecology of bats, including energetics of migration and trade-offs when acquiring energy from urban fruits versus nectar
  • The effects of bats on the health of local human communities
  • The interactions between nutrition, energetic state of bats, and viral dynamics in bat populations
  • The factors that drive Hendra virus dynamics in bat populations and spillover from bats
  • The factors that drive human narratives about the Hendra virus horse vaccination and about spillover events
  • The dynamics of risk perception, risk narratives, and decisions related to urban flying fox camps and Hendra virus spillover
  • Effective risk communication strategies that influence support for scientifically-sound policy decisions
 

Increases in

the frequency of human-wildlife interaction have led to emergence of zoonoses, pathogens that are transmitted from animals to humans. Zoonoses are a major threat to biosecurity and public health. Bats are hosts of some of the highest-profile emerging zoonoses, including Ebola, Marburg, Nipah, and Hendra viruses and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS).

Zoonotic transmission often occurs when bats abandon natural habitats to exploit resources associated with human settlements. It is often unclear why bats move into human-dominated landscapes and attempts to alleviate the ensuing conflicts with humans often exacerbate the negative interactions. Hendra virus, a bat borne pathogen in Australia, is a model system to study the interactions among changing landscapes, humans, bats, and pathogens. A surge of bat movement into towns and cities in eastern Australia has led to conflict between humans and bats and to mortality of horses and humans from Hendra virus spillover. A Hendra virus vaccine was developed to protect horses, thereby indirectly protecting humans, but vaccine usage has been low due in part to successful anti-vaccination narratives and lack of awareness about the vaccination.

This research will address the hypotheses that the root cause of negative bat-human interactions is the loss of habitat needed to sustain bats’ nomadic feeding ecology and that some management decisions (e.g., destruction of roost sites, not vaccinating horses) may exacerbate conflict, spillover, and habitat loss.

The researchers will study habitat loss, energetics of bat migration, dynamics of zoonoses, and risk narratives that inform decisions about management of wildlife and responses to disease outbreaks. The project will identify and redirect interactions that lead to poor health outcomes, with an emphasis on improving science communication and policies that protect wildlife and human health. The project team, which includes investigators at ten academic institutions and a non-profit organization, will generate and disseminate methods that can be transferred to numerous countries in which similar zoonotic events occur, but that have limited resources for biological surveillance, disease prevention, and responding to outbreaks.

 

This research

integrates theory and field data spanning ecology, physiology, epidemiology, political science, anthropology, veterinary medicine, behavioral ecology, and mathematical modeling. The researchers will collect data on land-use change and the physiology, energetics, and movement of bats, and will use mechanistic models to examine how the relations among these variables influence bats’ use of urban areas. The researchers will conduct field and modeling studies on the dynamics of bat viruses to help predict future instances of spillover. Moreover, the researchers will use narratives, collaboratively produced by researchers and local communities, to conduct experiments on risk perceptions and decisions about bat nuisance, virus spillover, and vaccination. Ultimately, the project will lead to an evidence-based program for reversing the negative human-wildlife interactions that lead to epidemics and loss of wildlife. It will also lead to a framework for public education and engagement that is endorsed by local communities and is embedded in ecological restoration initiatives.
Mist nets used to catch bats

Mist nets used to catch bats

Griffith PhD student Tamika Lunn releasing a flying fox

Griffith PhD student Tamika Lunn releasing a flying fox

Black flying fox under anaesthetic being fitting with a GPS tracker

Black flying fox under anaesthetic being fitting with a GPS tracker