No, Aussie bats won’t give you COVID-19. We rely on them more than you think



Justin Welbergen, CC BY-SA

Pia Lentini, University of Melbourne; Alison Peel, Griffith University; Hume Field, The University of Queensland, and Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University

In this pandemic it’s tempting to look for someone, or something, to blame. Bats are a common scapegoat and the community is misled to believe getting rid of them could be a quick fix. But are bats really the problem?

Australian bats have been in the news recently for two main reasons: the misplaced fear they might carry COVID-19, and overblown reports they carry a koala-killing virus.

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This recent bad press has seen increased incidences of disturbing cruelty against Australia’s bats, as well as calls to cull or “move on” bats that live close to people. Because fewer bats would mean less disease, right? Wrong. Here’s why.

Debunking bad press

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This virus is one of thousands of coronaviruses found in mammals all over the world, most with no impact on people.

A closely related virus has previously been identified in a species of horseshoe bat in China, so it’s probable the ancestor of the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in bats.




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While several coronaviruses have been detected in various Australian bat species, none are closely related to those viruses associated with zoonotic (animal-borne) diseases like COVID-19, SARS and MERS. And none have been recorded to infect people.

More contact between humans and wildlife, through activities such as unregulated wildlife trade can lead to potentially harmful novel viruses spilling over from their natural hosts into new species.
Hume Field, Author provided

Australian bats also recently appeared in the news because of the discovery of a retrovirus in black flying-foxes related to koala immune deficiency syndrome. Some news outlets have falsely suggested bats pose a risk to koala populations.

But the original scientific paper clearly stated the proposed transmission from bats to koalas happened long ago, on evolutionary time scales. What we see in these species today are two separate viruses – there’s no evidence the virus detected in today’s bats can infect koalas, let alone cause disease.

Aussie bats have had it tough

There are about 1,400 species of bats worldwide, including 81 in Australia.

All of our bat species are native and unique. Most are small, nocturnal, and call outside of the human hearing range, so the average Australian would be lucky to see more than a couple of species in their lifetime.

This is important to remember when it comes to thinking about how often they actually interact with people.

A selection of Australia’s bat diversity (Top row from left: grey-headed flying-fox; orange leaf-nosed bat; common blossom bat; southern myotis; Bottom row: golden-tipped bat; eastern horseshoe bat; common sheath-tailed bat; ghost bat)
Justin Welbergen (grey-headed flying-fox, eastern horseshoe bat); Nicola Hanrahan (ghost bat); Bruce Thomson (golden-tipped bat); Steve Parish & Les Hall for remainder of species

Most Australians tend to think of “bats” as the two species of flying-foxes (or “fruit bats”) we commonly see in our cities: grey-headed flying-foxes (in the south) and black flying-foxes (in the north).

Flying-foxes have had a tough few months. Many Eucalypts failed to flower, so food shortages saw thousands of flying-foxes perish from starvation, and then many more died en masse in this summer’s extreme heat.

They were also heavily affected by the summer bushfires that burnt large tracts of the bats’ winter feeding areas.

What are bats doing in urban areas?

Flying-foxes show up in urban areas in search of food. Many residents equate seeing more flying-foxes to the species increasing in numbers, and are frustrated that the bats are classified as threatened.

In fact, grey-headed flying-foxes have experienced substantial population declines in recent years. While there are currently hundreds of thousands, historical data indicate that there were once millions.

Part of a flying-fox colony, asleep during the day before they fly out for breakfast at dusk.
Justin Welbergen, Author provided

Nonetheless, bats are not always easy to live close to. Their fly-outs make for spectacular shows, but colonies can also create a lot of noise, smell and mess.

This, plus misunderstandings around disease risks, including from COVID-19, has meant loud voices are calling for the eviction of bats from urban areas by any means possible.




Read more:
Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying-foxes in urban Australia


Why can’t we just move or cull them?

Managing bats in urban environments is no straightforward matter. Flying-foxes have complex movement dynamics, which makes “dispersing” them from urban areas extremely difficult.

Those who advocate for dispersals to be carried out often cite the Sydney and Melbourne Botanic Gardens as examples of successes. But these took place over months and years, large areas, and cost more than A$2 million each. Relatively cheaper dispersals have also been attempted, but ultimately failed.




Read more:
Most laws ignore ‘human-wildlife conflict’. This makes us vulnerable to pandemics


Culling is an equally impractical and extremely controversial suggestion. Most Australians accept that needless killing and harming of native wildlife is unacceptable, and our laws reflect this.

There are the obvious animal ethics issues, but from a practical perspective, proposing we could cull (by shooting) flying-foxes in densely-populated urban areas to effectively reduce populations is also completely unrealistic.

What’s more, attempts at both dispersals and culling are known to have the undesirable effect of splintering colonies, and driving stressed bats into surrounding areas (parks, residential backyards, school grounds). Essentially, increasing people’s exposure to bats.

Physiological stress could also promote viral shedding. Flying-fox populations are already struggling to recover from severe food shortages, extreme heat events and bushfires. So advocating such actions is misguided, with the potential to amplify, rather than alleviate disease risk.

A Mexican free-tailed bat with insect prey, and a Christmas Island flying-fox covered in pollen.
Flickr: US Department of Agriculture (left); Carol de Jong (right)

Are bats to blame?

No, bats are our friends – we rely on them more than most people realise.

Many bats are voracious predators of insects and their service to the global agricultural industry is worth billions of dollars each year.

Flying-foxes also help maintain the integrity of forests by providing long-distance pollination and seed-dispersal services. That makes them integral to the recovery of Australia’s forests from last summer’s fires.




Read more:
Coronavirus: live animals are stressed in wet markets, and stressed animals are more likely to carry diseases


The fundamental issue is not the viruses in bats. SARS-CoV-2 is now a human virus, and we are responsible, knowingly or not, for its global spread.

The “epidemiological bridges” that we’ve inadvertently created – which increase our contact with wildlife through encroachment into natural areas, habitat destruction, and unregulated wildlife trade – are what’s really to blame.The Conversation

Pia Lentini, Research Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Alison Peel, Senior Research Fellow in Wildlife Disease Ecology, Griffith University; Hume Field, Science and Policy Advisor for China & Southeast Asia, EcoHealth Alliance | Honorary Professor, School of Veterinary Science, The University of Queensland, and Justin Welbergen, President of the Australasian Bat Society | Associate Professor of Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s wrong to blame bats for the coronavirus epidemic



A small colony of Townsend’s big eared bats at Lava Beds National Monument, Calif.
Shawn Thomas, NPS/Flickr

Peter Alagona, University of California, Santa Barbara

Genomic research showing that the COVID-19 coronavirus likely originated in bats has produced heavy media coverage and widespread concern. There is now danger that frightened people and misguided officials will try to curb the epidemic by culling these remarkable creatures, even though this strategy has failed in the past.

As an environmental historian focusing on endangered species and biological diversity, I know that bats provide valuable services to humans and need protection. Instead of blaming bats for the coronavirus epidemic, I believe it’s important to know more about them. Here’s some background explaining why they carry so many viruses, and why these viruses only jump infrequently to humans – typically, when people hunt bats or intrude into places where bats live.

The challenges of life as a bat

It’s not easy being the world’s only flying mammal. Flying requires a lot of energy, so bats need to consume nutritious foods, such as fruits and insects.

As they forage, bats pollinate around 500 plant species, including mangoes, bananas, guavas and agaves (the source of tequila). Insect-eating bats may consume the equivalent of their body weight in bugs each night – including mosquitoes that carry diseases like Zika, dengue and malaria.

Grey-headed flying fox feeding on flower nectar, Queensland, Australia. Its face is covered with yellow pollen, which it will spread to other flowers.
Andrew Mercer/Wikipedia, CC BY

Bats convert these foods into droppings called guano, which nourish entire ecosystems, have been harvested for centuries as fertilizer, and have been used to make soaps and antibiotics.

Since fruits and insects tend to follow seasonal boom-and-bust cycles, most bats hibernate for long periods, during which their core body temperatures may fall as low as 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius). To conserve warmth, they gather in insulated places like caves, use their wings as blankets and huddle together in colonies.

When fruits ripen and insects hatch, bats wake up and flutter out of their roosts to forage. But now they have a different problem: Flying requires so much energy that their metabolic rates may spike as high as 34 times their resting levels, and their core body temperatures can exceed 104 degrees F.

To stay cool, bats have wings filled with blood vessels that radiate heat. They also lick their fur to simulate sweat and pant like dogs. And they rest during the heat of the day and forage in the cool of night, which makes their ability to navigate by echolocation, or reflected sound, handy.

The Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, houses the largest urban bat colony in the world.

Diverse and unique

Humans are more closely related to bats than we are to dogs, cows or whales. But bats seem more alien, which can make it harder for people to relate to them.

Bats are the most unusual of the world’s 26 mammal orders, or large groups, such as rodents and carnivores. They are the only land mammals that navigate by echolocation, and the only mammals capable of true flight.

Many bats are small and have rapid metabolisms, but they reproduce slowly and live long lives. That’s more typical of large animals like sharks and elephants.

And a bat’s internal body temperatures can fluctuate by more than 60 degrees Fahrenheit in response to external conditions. This is more typical of cold-blooded animals that take on the temperature of their surroundings, like turtles and lizards.

Bats carry a range of viruses that can sicken other mammals when they jump species. These include at least 200 coronaviruses, some of which cause human respiratory diseases like SARS and MERS. Bats also host several filoviruses, including some that in humans manifest as deadly hemorrhagic fevers like Marburg and probably even Ebola.

Normally, these viruses remain hidden in bats’ bodies and ecosystems without harming humans. People raise the risk of transmission between species when they encroach on bats’ habitats or harvest bats for medicine or food. In particular, humans pack live bats into unsanitary conditions with other wild species that may serve as intermediate hosts. This is what happened at the Wuhan wet market where many experts believe COVID-19 emerged.

With a few exceptions, such as rabies, bats host their pathogens without getting sick. Recent media coverage attempting to explain this riddle has focused on a 2019 study suggesting that bats carry a gene mutation, which may enable them to remain healthy while harboring such viruses. But while the mutation may be of interest from a public health perspective, understanding where this novel coronavirus came from requires understanding what makes a bat a bat.

The blood vessels in bats’ wings (shown: fruit bats, Northern Territory, Australia) radiate some of the heat they generate while flying.
shellac/Flickr, CC BY

Why do bats carry so many diseases but seem unaffected by them? Genetic mutations that boost their immune systems may help. But a better answer is that bats are the only mammals that fly.

With thousands of bats crowded together licking, breathing and pooping on one another, bat caves are ideal environments for breeding and transmitting germs. But when bats fly, they generate so much internal heat that, according to many scientists, their bodies are able to fight off the germs they carry. This is known as the “flight as fever hypothesis.”

Bats at risk

Bats may not always be around to eat insect pests, pollinate fruit crops and provide fertilizer. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Bat Conservation International, at least 24 bat species are critically endangered, and 104 are vulnerable to extinction. For at least 224 additional bat species, scientists lack the data to know their status.

Overharvesting, persecution and habitat loss are the greatest threats that bats face, but they also suffer from their own novel diseases. Since it was first documented in upstate New York in 2007, the fungal pathogen Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), which causes white-nose syndrome, has infected 13 North American bat species, including two listed as endangered.

Nobody knows where Pd came from, but the fact that several bat species seem never to have encountered it before suggests that people probably introduced or spread it. The fungus thrives in cool, damp places like caves. It grows on bats while they’re hibernating, causing such irritation that they become restless, wasting precious energy during seasons when little food is available. White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats, including more than 90% of the bats in some populations.

Bats are extraordinary creatures that benefit people in myriad ways, and our world would be a poorer, duller and more dangerous place without them. They need protection from the cruel treatment and wasteful exploitation that also threatens human health.

[Our newsletter explains what’s going on with the coronavirus pandemic. Subscribe now.]The Conversation

Peter Alagona, Associate Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s threatened bats need protection from a silent killer: white-nose syndrome



Three North American little brown bats with signs of white-nose syndrome, which is virtually certain to hit Australian bats without further action.
KDFWR/Terry Derting, CC BY-SA

Christopher Turbill, Western Sydney University and Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University

We already know how deadly this summer’s fires have been for mammals, birds, and reptiles across Australia. But beyond this bushfire season, many of those same species – including our bats, which make up around a quarter of all Australian mammal species – are facing another devastating threat to their survival.

White‐nose syndrome has recently decimated bat populations across North America. While the fungal pathogen responsible for this disease, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, currently doesn’t occur in Australia, the fungus is virtually certain to jump continents in the next decade.

Our recent research, published in the journal Austral Ecology, attempted to quantify this risk – and the results are not encouraging. Up to eight bat species occupy caves in south-eastern Australia that provide conditions suitable for the fungus to grow.

Large parts of southern Australia provides cave habitat suitable for growth by the cold-loving fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome.
Turbill & Welbergen 2019

Even before this summer’s fires, seven of those types of bats were listed on state or federal legislation as threatened with extinction. This includes the critically endangered southern bent-winged bat (Miniopterus orianae bassanii), a species whose caves would all provide optimal conditions for growth of the fungus.

All caves occupied by the critically endangered southern bent-winged bat provide ideal thermal conditions for white-nose syndrome.
Dr Lindy Lumsden

Millions of bats wiped out in North America

White-nose syndrome was first detected in the United States in 2006 at a popular tourist cave in the state of New York. Since then, the disease has spread across North America, killing millions of bats in its wake, with many local populations experiencing 90 to 100% mortality.

The novel pathogen hypothesis explains why P. destructans has such catastrophic impacts on North American bats: the immune system of these species is evolutionarily naive to this fungal attack. Accordingly, in Europe and Asia, where P. destructans is endemic and widespread, few bats exhibit white‐nose syndrome and mortalities are rare.

Australia’s unique wildlife is inherently at risk from invasive novel pathogens because of its long‐term biogeographical isolation. Thus Australian bats, like their distant North American relatives, probably lack an effective immune response to P. destructans and would be susceptible to developing white-nose syndrome.

Since its detection in the United States in 2006, white-nose syndrome has received extensive media attention globally.

Hibernation is the key risk period

Most fungal pathogens grow best at cool temperatures, and a high body temperature in mammals and birds provides an effective barrier against fungal diseases. The fungus causing white-nose syndrome is also cold-loving, ceasing to grow at temperatures above 20°C. The only time it can infect and kill bats is when they hibernate.

Bats go cold (use torpor) during hibernation to prevent starvation over winter in temperate climates. Hibernating bats that are infected by P. destructans rewarm more frequently than normal. These unscheduled bursts of metabolic heat production prematurely burn up the body fat of overwintering bats. Hence, despite the damage caused by white-nose syndrome to the bat’s skin tissue, they apparently die due to starvation or dehydration.

The infection is easily visible under UV light.
Turner et al. 2014

Hibernation is key to predicting the susceptibility of bat populations to mortality from white-nose syndrome: those with less energy to spare over winter are more at risk. Consequently, white-nose syndrome has fuelled a large research program on the winter ecology and hibernation physiology of North American bats.

Bats in south-eastern Australia do enter a period of winter hibernation, but that is about the extent of what we know. This knowledge gap makes it impossible to predict how they will respond if exposed to P. destructans. Even non-lethal impacts, however, will worsen the extinction-bound trajectory of several cave-roosting species, most notably the eastern and southern bent-winged bats.

What can Australia do?

Given the impending arrival of P. destructans in Australia, and our study’s findings of widespread thermal cave suitability in south-eastern Australia, we urge immediate action. This includes tightening biosecurity measures and gaining missing information on bat biology so we are better prepared for a possible white-nose syndrome epidemic.

The importance of this threat has not been missed by Wildlife Health Australia, which has produced guidelines for reporting and response to incursion. Advice is also available from the Commonwealth. Just recently, white-nose syndrome was listed in the national priority list for exotic environmental pests and diseases, ranking in the top five of native animal diseases and their pathogens.

Cave enthusiasts have also been proactive in alerting members to white-nose syndrome and the risk of accidentally introducing P. destructans, especially when returning from overseas caving adventures. And the Australasian Bat Society – a strong advocate for bat conservation – has alerted the public and government agencies to this potential new threat.

Action now is critical

At present, there is little that would prevent P. destructans from making it its way to Australian caves, despite two years passing since experts assessed the risk of incursion as almost certain.

We need effective measures at all levels, from requiring incoming visitors to identify contact with cave environments, to decontamination procedures at caves popular with international tourists.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s White-nose Syndrome Response Team produced this infographic, including what you can do to help bats.

Predicting the impact of white-nose syndrome on Australian bats is currently not possible because we know so little about their winter biology. We urge the Australian government to fund specific research to gain this information.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has injected more than US$46 million since 2008 into research and fieldwork to address the threat. Australian researchers can use this work to focus on the critical data needed to inform models that predict the vulnerability of local bat populations.

Why we need bats to survive

Bats are incredibly valuable in their own right. But the world needs healthy bat populations: a single insectivorous bat can eat up to half its body mass in insects each night, and together colonies of bats provide a service with an estimated value to the agricultural industry alone in the billions of dollars per year.

We hope this terrible disease will not threaten Australian bats. But the precautionary principle dictates we should plan and act now, assuming the worst-case scenario. Alarm bells are ringing.


Read more: The importance of Australia’s weird and wonderful batsThe Conversation


A selection of Australia’s bat diversity. Top row from left: grey-headed flying-fox; orange leaf-nosed bat; common blossom bat; large-footed myotis. Bottom row: golden-tipped bat; eastern horseshoe bat; common sheath-tailed bat; ghost bat.
Justin Welbergen (grey-headed flying-fox, eastern horseshoe bat); Nicola Hanrahan (ghost bat); Bruce Thomson (golden-tipped bat); Steve Parish & Les Hall for remainder of species

Christopher Turbill, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University and Justin Welbergen, President of the Australasian Bat Society | Associate Professor of Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From devils to superheroes: our complicated relationship with bats



File 20180806 119634 k7bqe3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A “cloud” of Mexican freetail bats leaving their roost.
Wikimedia

Susan Lawler, La Trobe University

Review: Bat by Tessa Laird.


Did you know that the collective noun for bats is a “cloud”, or that in the first scientific classification of mammals, bats were placed close to humans because, like us, they have two nipples? The book Bat, by Tessa Laird, is full of similar tidbits that you will want to share with others. It is also engrossing, eloquent and beautifully illustrated.

Bat contains hundreds of delightful bat facts, but they are so grounded in context that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. One cannot help but become intrigued and eventually transformed. I know I will never look at bats the same way again.

A chocolate wattled bat.
Flickr, CC BY

The author moves between Chiropteran (the scientific name for the bat group) biology, conservation, history, psychology and pop culture to capture the essence of bats, not only in all their marvellous diversity, but in our collective imagination.

Because their flight is erratic, bats are used as a symbol of insanity. Because they hang upside down and are active at night, bats can imply an inversion of normality. Their triumphant daily emergence from their caves can even represent rebirth.




Read more:
Why we shouldn’t be so quick to demonise bats


Bats suffer from not fitting comfortably into familiar categories. In Aesop’s Fables, the bat switched allegiance in the war between birds and beasts, so that when it was over the bat was shunned by both and forced to live at night. Their apparently hybrid nature was first noted by the Comte de Buffon in the 1780s when he wrote that the bat is an “imperfect quadruped and a still more imperfect bird”.

In Christian iconography, devils often have bat wings. Hans Memling, Hell, circa 1485.
Wikimedia

Early Christian iconography used bat wings for demons, to contrast with the bird wings that we see on angels. This may have something to do with the European prejudice against bats. When a sailor from Captain Cook’s Endeavour saw an Australian flying fox for the first time, he ran back to camp terrified, claiming to have met a real live devil.

Bats have been misunderstood throughout human history. It is, on reflection, extraordinary that we still use the phrase “blind as a bat”, knowing that they catch insects on the wing in the dark. Echolocation was not discovered until 1938, and because we cannot hear their calls, we did not know that bats basically spend their lives yelling at the world.

Even now, few people realise that bats are socially sophisticated; they share food, information, and maintain lifelong friendships within their colonies. They even engage in oral sex!

Yet bats are celebrated in some cultures. In China, bats are a symbol of luck, in part because the words “bat” and “luck” sound like each other in Chinese. They are also beloved in indigenous cultures from Mexico to Samoa to Papua New Guinea. Interestingly, cultures that venerate ancestors tend to love bats.

The demon queller Zhong Kui (鍾馗) and five bats representing the five blessings (五福).
Wikimedia

And just when you think that this book is about bats, it flips perspective and shines a light on humanity and our own foibles. Such as the second world war project to drop bats with incendiary devices strapped to them so they would crawl into the enemy’s roof cavities and explode.

Or when someone threw a live bat on stage and Ozzy Osbourne bit its head off thinking it was a toy – he was rushed to hospital for shots but apparently privately wondered if anyone would have noticed a change if he had contracted rabies.

There are pages dedicated to an analysis of the Batman superhero and his many incarnations, the Dracula story and its evolution since Bram Stoker’s publication in 1897, as well as more contemporary bat-inspired art.

For example, the 2015 installation in Federation Square in Melbourne, titled Batmania, consisted of 200 life sized flying foxes made from black plastic rubbish bags with holes burned in a filigreed pattern so that they looked like the stars of the night sky shining through. Each bat was juxtaposed with a collapsed parachute, as if to emphasise man’s inability to fly unaided. If we do not yearn for the freedom of flight, perhaps we dream of the immortality of vampires or the strength and anonymity of Batman himself.

Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
IMDB

The bad reputation bats have in the human world has not been without consequences for them. Blamed for disease outbreaks from Ebola to rabies to SARS, bats have been killed in great numbers due to fear and ignorance. Their habitats are fragile and shrinking, and it is hard to overstate the planetary implications of their demise.




Read more:
Killer climate: tens of thousands of flying foxes dead in a day


Bats eat many tons of insect pests and are responsible for the pollination of some important and beautiful plants: mangoes, bananas, saguaro cactus. The conservation movement for bats has taken off in recent years, due in part to some excellent photography and a new appreciation of the cuteness of baby bats.

If you read this book you cannot fail to care more about bats, which I hope means that more people will become active in bat conservation. In the author’s own words:

The ConversationAs we have seen, bats have been variously associated with sexuality, diversity and sociability, combined with intuition and an ability to navigate through dark places, all of which seem like desirable qualities at the start of the twenty-first century.

Susan Lawler, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why we shouldn’t be so quick to demonise bats



File 20171210 27698 svxxy3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Justin A. Welbergen, CC BY-NC-SA

Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University and Kyle Armstrong, University of Adelaide

Australian health authorities regularly issue public reminders not to touch bats because they can host Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV). This type of health education is necessary because it reduces human exposure to bat-borne diseases. However, subsequent sensationalist media reporting risks demonising bats, which increases human-wildlife conflict and poses barriers to conservation.

Bats are remarkable native creatures of key ecological and economic importance. We urgently need more matter-of-fact style reporting around the risks of bat-borne diseases to avoid vilification and persecution of these unappreciated mammals.


Read more: In defence of bats: beautifully designed mammals that should be left in peace


Australia’s weird and wonderful bats

Face of an eastern tube-nosed fruit bat (or ‘Shrek bat’), a solitary bat with long tubular nostrils that are thought to prevent fruit juices from running up its nose.
Justin Welbergen

Australia has 81 bat species, from nine families. They comprise the second-largest group of mammals after marsupials (159 species). They range in size from the little-known northern pipistrelle that weighs less than three grams and ranks amongst the smallest bats in the world, to the black flying-fox that can weigh more than a kilogram and is among the world’s largest.

Bats play many different roles in Australian ecosystems. The southern myotis or “fishing bat”, for example, has long toes that it uses to rake up small fish and invertebrates from rivers, lakes and ponds. The golden-tipped bat delicately plucks spiders from their webs, while the ghost bat feeds on large insects, rodents, birds, and even other bats. These are examples of “microbats” — species that use echolocation to find their way in darkness and detect prey.

Australia is also home to nine “megabats” — species that rely on large eyes and a keen sense of smell to find pollen, nectar, or fruit. The common blossom bat, for example, is a mouse-sized fruit bat with a very long tongue for feeding on nectar; the eastern tube-nosed fruit bat is a solitary bat with long tubular nostrils that are thought to prevent fruit juices from running up its nose; and the little red flying fox is adapted for long-distance flight, travelling thousands of kilometres across the Australian landscape in search of food.

A selection of Australia’s bat diversity (Top row from left: grey-headed flying-fox; orange leaf-nosed bat; common blossom bat; southern myotis; Bottom row: golden-tipped bat; eastern horseshoe bat; common sheath-tailed bat; ghost bat)
Justin Welbergen (grey-headed flying-fox, eastern horseshoe bat); Nicola Hanrahan (ghost bat); Bruce Thomson (golden-tipped bat); Steve Parish & Les Hall for remainder of species

Bats are largely nocturnal and inconspicuous, except for those flying-foxes that sometimes appear in large numbers in urban environments where they can be cause for much frustration and conflict.


Read more: Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying-foxes in urban Australia


All bats are vulnerable to a range of human threats, including the clearing of foraging areas and the loss or disturbance of roosts. Thirteen of Australia’s bat species are now listed as “threatened” under our national conservation legislation. Australia’s most recent extinction was a bat: the Christmas Island pipistrelle winked out of existence forever in 2009 following a sluggish federal government response to calls for urgent conservation action.

Why are bats important?

Bats are important in two ways. First, each species has its own value as a part of Australia’s natural and cultural heritage. They are fragile creatures, but tough enough to survive and thrive in the harsh Australian bush — if they are given the chance.

Second, microbats provide valuable ecosystem services because many are voracious predators of insects, including many agricultural and forestry pests. Megabats, meanwhile, provide long-distance pollination and seed-dispersal services, helping to maintain the integrity of Australia’s increasingly fragmented natural ecosystems.

Bats such as the grey-headed flying-fox (left) and the Christmas Island flying-fox (right) provide expensive pollination services for free.
Justin Welbergen (left); Carol de Jong (right)

Australian bat lyssavirus

Some Australian bats are hosts for Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) that can cause a rabies-like disease in humans and potentially pets. Since its discovery in 1996, there have been three human deaths from ABLV in Australia.

Image of Australian bat lyssavirus. The finger-like projections are the virus, as it is shown budding off from a cell.
Electron Microscopy Unit, Australian Animal Health Laboratory, CSIRO

The virus is rare, and its prevalence among bats is thought to be less than 1%. But it is more common among sick, orphaned, or injured bats – that are in turn more likely to end up in hands of the public.

A rabies vaccine has been around since the time of Louis Pasteur, and when combined with proper wound management and prompt medical care, is very effective in preventing the disease. Rabies vaccine that is given after exposure to ABLV, but before a person becomes unwell, can still prevent the disease. But once a person develops the disease there is no effective treatment.

“No touch, no risk”

As long as we do not touch bats we are not at risk. Yet despite this simple message, many people still handle sick or injured bats, even though this is the major cause of potential exposures to ABLV.

Christopher Todd.

Humans are not exposed to ABLV when bats fly overhead or feed or roost in gardens. Bat urine and faeces are not considered to be infectious, and tank or surface water contaminated with these substances is also not a threat.

The primary ABLV transmission route is through bites or scratches, bringing infected bat saliva into direct contact with the eyes, nose or mouth, or with an open wound. Therefore, the best protection by far is to avoid handling bats.

If scratched or bitten, wash thoroughly with soap and water.
Arlington County

If you do get scratched or bitten by a bat, the Australian Department of Health recommends that you immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water for at least five minutes, apply an antiseptic with antiviral action, and seek medical attention.

Prevention is better than cure, so people should never handle bats (or other wildlife) unless they are trained, vaccinated, and wearing appropriate protective gear. If you find an injured or sick bat, the best thing to do is to contact your local wildlife agency or veterinarian.

Reporting without the demonisation


Internet Archive Book Images/flickr

Bats already have a dark reputation in folklore, myths, and modern culture. This is exacerbated by negative media attention following public health warnings and health research.


Read more: Why bats don’t get sick from the deadly diseases they carry


We strongly encourage a more matter-of-fact style of reporting around the risks from bat-borne diseases. You are much more likely to be killed by lightning or by falling out of bed than by a bat.

The ConversationGranted, the risks posed by bat-borne diseases are relatively new to most of the public, but more nuanced framing can effectively support both public health and wildlife conservation goals. So while you remember to slip-slop-slap, be croc-wise and snake aware, and wear gloves when gardening, you should also add “don’t touch bats” to your common-sense repertoire.

Justin Welbergen, President of the Australasian Bat Society | Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University and Kyle Armstrong, Past president of the Australasian Bat Society | South Australian Museum, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying-foxes in urban Australia


Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University and Peggy Eby, UNSW Australia

The conflict between urbanites and wildlife recently developed a new battleground: the small coastal New South Wales town of Batemans Bay, where the exceptional flowering of spotted gums has attracted a huge influx of grey-headed flying-foxes from across Australia’s southeast.

In response to intense and highly publicised community concern, federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has announced he will seek an immediate National Interest Exemption to facilitate dispersal of these bats – a move that risks undermining legal protections afforded to this and other threatened species.

Similar conflicts are occurring elsewhere in NSW, such as the Hunter region, where some unscrupulous members of the public lit a fire in a flying-fox roost at Cessnock.

With the ongoing expansion of the human urban footprint, animals are increasingly confronted with urban environments. Human encroachment into natural habitats generally negatively affects biodiversity. However, urban landscapes can present wildlife with an irresistible lure of reliable food supplies and other resources. While urban wildlife can provide a range of benefits to health and wellbeing, it can also be cause for frustration and conflict.

Urban human-wildlife conflict is a growing area of management concern and scientific research. But the research suggests that the current strategies for addressing NSW’s conflicts between humans and flying-foxes might not have the intended results.

Flying-foxes increasingly find themselves in urban areas.
Justin Welbergen

Ruling the urban roost

Australian flying-foxes are becoming more urbanised, and the noise, smell and droppings from their roosts can have huge impacts on local residents.

A fundamental problem underlying current approaches to urban roosts is a lack of understanding of the extraordinary mobility of flying-foxes. They are some of the most mobile animals in Australia, with movements that range from foraging trips of up to 120 km in a single night to long-distance nomadism covering thousands of kilometres in a single year.

Nomadic movements of an adult female grey-headed flying-fox, tracked over a period of four years and currently at Batemans Bay.
John Martin & Justin Welbergen, unpublished

While roosts can remain active for decades, they are more like backpacker hostels than stable households, housing a constantly changing clientele that comes to visit local attractions. Roosts are connected into large networks through which flying-foxes move in response to changes in local food resources.

This explains the sudden influx in places such as Batemans Bay where preferred food suddenly becomes abundant. But it also highlights the importance of a national approach to flying-fox management and conservation.

Intense local flowerings of Eucalypts, such as spotted gums, produce copious amounts of nectar and pollen, which attract large numbers of flying-foxes and other species for several weeks. When a relatively small local flying-fox population that is tolerated by its human neighbours suddenly increases tenfold, it can place severe pressure on the local community.

Despite their transient nature, these influxes are often wrongly interpreted as population explosions, leading to calls for culling. In comparison, more humane tactics – such as using loud noise or vegetation removal to disperse the flying-foxes – can seem like a more balanced response. But does dispersal actually work?

Council workers in Charters Towers, Queensland, using ‘foggers’ to disperse flying-foxes from a local roost.
Australasian Bats Society

Shifting the problem elsewhere

There is now ample evidence to show that dispersals are extremely costly and can exacerbate the very human-wildlife conflict that they aim to resolve.

Most dispersals result in the flying-foxes returning the original roost as soon as the dispersal program ends, because naïve new individuals continue to arrive from elsewhere. Overcoming this can take months or years of repeated daily dispersal.

Other dispersals result in flying-foxes establishing new roosts a few hundred metres away, typically within the same urban environment in locations that we cannot control. This risks shifting the problem to previously unaffected members of a community and to other communities nearby.

Former flying-fox roost at Boonah, Queensland, that contained thousands of flying-foxes before it was destroyed in June 2014.
Justin Welbergen

While flying-foxes are often portrayed as noisy pests, they serve our economic interest by providing irreplaceable pollination and seed-dispersal services for free. What’s more, those same bats that annoy people during the day work tirelessly at night to maintain the health of our fragmented forests and natural ecosystems.

So it is in our national interest to manage conflict at urban roosts, by using approaches that balance community concerns with environmental considerations.

Flying-foxes perform irreplaceable ecological roles in our natural environment.
Steve Parish

To be considered “successful”, a dispersal should permanently reduce conflict to a level that is acceptable to the community without causing significant harm to the animals. However, dispersals are currently implemented at the local council level with little or no monitoring of the impacts in or outside the immediately affected area. This makes it hard to assess whether they have been successful.

For example, it is not uncommon for flowering to cease and flying-fox numbers to decline naturally during the period of active dispersal. This gives the community a false sense that a permanent solution has been achieved, when in fact the issues will recur the next time the trees blossom. There is thus an urgent need for urban roosts to be managed with properly defined and applied criteria for success.

Evidence-based management

Unfortunately, lack of research effort directed at “ugly” and “less popular” Australian animals means that very few evidence-based management tools are available to deal with contentious roosts.

Research targeting a few key areas would greatly help efforts to improve urban roost management. For instance, we do not know how flying-foxes choose their roost sites, which leaves us unable to design “carrot solutions” by creating more attractive roost sites elsewhere.

Intensive tree-flowering events are relatively infrequent and hard to predict. This means that it is difficult to prepare communities for a sudden influx of flying-foxes.

Furthermore, the acceptability of various flying-fox management options differs between sections of the community, so it is difficult to find optimal solutions. Social scientists are currently trying to help identify priority areas that promote long-term viability of flying-foxes while also easing conflict with humans.

The extreme mobility of flying-foxes means that a uniform federal approach for management is needed.
Justin Welbergen/WildPhotos.org

Local, state and federal governments continue to allocate considerable funds for dispersal responses, even though such actions are high-risk activities for local communities and are unlikely to provide long-term solutions. We argue strongly that targeted research is needed to better inform land managers and affected communities of flying-fox ecology and provide them with low-cost, low-risk, evidence-based tools for dealing with urban roosts.

Flying-foxes don’t care about legislative borders, and state-based responsibility for wildlife management leads to discontinuity in approaches between jurisdictions. While flying-foxes are being monitored at the national scale, this initiative needs to be combined with a uniform federal approach for managing flying-foxes in our human landscapes. Otherwise, conflicts such as those faced by the residents of Batemans Bay will continue unabated.

The Conversation

Justin Welbergen, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University and Peggy Eby, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Solomon Islands expedition seeks to conserve the extraordinary monkey-faced bat and giant rat


Ivy Shih, The Conversation and Tim Dean, The Conversation

The Australian Museum has announced a scientific expedition to the Solomon Islands to research a coconut cracking megabat and giant rat, with Professor Tim Flannery as one of the leaders of the program.

The expedition will be the most extensive survey of the oceanic archipelago since the 1990s and offers a rare opportunity to gain valuable insights about mammalian evolution in an isolated ecosystem.

The team will use a combination of DNA sampling, camera traps and traditional local knowledge to piece together information on the behaviour and distribution of the monkey-faced bat and giant rat. The results will influence the design of long term conservation efforts at the Solomon Islands.

The Galapagos of the Western Pacific

Map of the Solomon Islands
CIA The World Factbook/Wikimedia Commons

The Solomon Islands are a series of six major oceanic islands located in the Western Pacific Ocean. They are remarkable in that clusters of these islands have been largely isolated from major land masses throughout their geological history.

From an evolutionary biology standpoint, the Solomon Islands are invaluable as each island has developed a unique biodiversity independent of the others. Flannery has described them as “the Galapagos of the Western Pacific”.

“The islands are around 40 million years old and the fauna on each island in the chain are different,“ Professor Tim Flannery told The Conversation. “They have never been connected by a land bridge, so they have both been colonised separately either by water or flown there.

“It’s like the Galapagos Islands. Take a blank slate and let the species come in and populate it.”

There are five known species of monkey-faced bat (genus Pteralopex) and at least one species of giant rat (Solomys ponceleti) that are endemic to the Solomon Islands, and the expedition leaders hope to discover more species of both.

They are also the largest mammals on the Solomon Islands. However, sightings have been few and far in between, with current knowledge limited to museum specimens and anecdotes.

There is an urgent need to gain a greater understanding of the mega-fauna, with one species of monkey-faced bat (Pteralopex flanneryi, named after Tim Flannery) and one species of giant rat (Solomys ponceleti) classified as “critically endangered” by The World Conservation Union.

Basic questions about their biology, habitat and reproduction still remain a mystery. Flannery said that the expedition will answer those questions, which are crucial to starting conservation efforts.

“We need to start building from the ground up. To design an effective conservation method we’re in that crucial information gathering stage.”

Coconut cracking megabats

Specimens of the five currently known Monkey-faced bat species.
ivy Shih/ Australian Museum

What is known about the species of monkey-faced bats and giant rats found on the Solomons is that they have evolved characteristics unique to their species. In the absence of any other land based mammal, they have occupied an ecological niches no other bats or rats have ventured into before.

With a wing span of over a metre and a half, the monkey-faced bats are “megabats”, and are one of the biggest bats in the world. Their common name originates from their primate-like appearance.

“They dwarf the fruit bats around Sydney. The biggest ones are very striking, enormous black bats with big boxy heads,” said Flannery.

The monkey-faced bats in the remote Solomon Islands have evolved characteristic usually associated with monkeys. They have complex teeth and jaws so powerful it allows them able to crack green coconuts. The molars have a unusually large number of cusps and heavy incisors to break through the hard husks of the coconut. In addition the bats have a “double canine” with two big cusps.

Skull of a monkey-faced bat (left) showing the distinctive double canines of the species compared to the flying fox (right)
Ivy Shih/Australian Museum, Author provided

To Flannery’s knowledge, no other mammal has that kind of unique canine.

The Solmons giant rat weighs up to two kilograms and has reproductive behaviour unseen in other rat species. The last recorded sighting in 2006 of a female and young showed that they had only one young at a time.

However Flannery explained that in the absence of any mammalian carnivores, the monkey-faced bat and giant rat did not evolve any defence mechanisms. This proved especially disastrous for the species when feral cats were introduced.

“They’re a naive species. We’ve had accounts of people taking monkey-faced bats out of tree holes and they won’t even attempt to bite you. They are just so unaware of predation.”

The brink of a new era of discovery

In addition to locating the monkey-faced bat and giant rat, the team will also be canvassing the Solomon Islands for other undiscovered native mammals. Samples will also be sent to the Australian Museum Research Institute for molecular analysis to describe species scientifically. Local community involvement will also be an invaluable component.

“We are dealing with what are probably going to be fragmented specimens. There might be an old trophy skull hanging in a house for years or a jawbone. Fragmented DNA for analysis will be a big part of our work.”

Ornamental Comb worn by men from the Solomon Islands. Traditionally, the plant fibre wickerwork was woven using the wing bone of a bat.
Ivy Shih/Australian Museum Collection, Author provided

Designing a conservation program would also be crucial to ensure long term preservation of the Solomon Island biodiversity.

Despite the challenges, the research program could contribute much to the nature of mammalian conservation and research.

“The reality is that we are poised on the brink of a new era of discovery because there are so many species which have remained undetected. So there will be a new burst of activity where we will see many new species described and hopefully for the first time ever effective conservation,” said Flannery.

The Conversation

Ivy Shih, Editor, The Conversation and Tim Dean, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.