- Last updated:
- 28 May 2020
Article by Tyron de Kauwe, Natural Areas Conservation Officer, Sunshine Coast Council
Boy oh boy, hasn’t everything changed since last we met!
Most importantly, I hope you are all safe and well and making the most of the opportunities and time our isolation has provided.
The flying-fox space has been a very active one lately and there is a lot of different information swirling around. I have received countless questions from concerned residents about flying-foxes and COVID-19, so I will try and address the most common asked ones and show you where to find more information. Let’s jump straight into this and tackle the big one first:
Wildlife disease surveillance in Australia is co-ordinated by Wildlife Health Australia (WHA). They have advised that there is no evidence of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for COVID-19) or similar viruses in Australian wildlife including flying-foxes. If you want to keep up to date, WHA constantly update their factsheet Novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) with the latest information.
Short answer – Don’t know.
As outlined by Dr Alison Peel, Senior Research Fellow in Wildlife Disease Ecology at Griffith University in this interview – scientists do not yet know the origin of the disease and may never know.
While many theories suggest the virus spread from horseshoe bats to an intermediate host—likely pangolin—before transmission to humans, what IS clear is that the cause of global spread is due to humans, regardless of where the virus originated. This is a human virus and cannot be contracted from Australian wildlife.
You can find out more from Dr Peel in this article.
Short answer – No.
There are two parts to this, so let’s answer the first part first. The Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is a new strain of coronavirus affecting humans. Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses and this particular one is the only one responsible for COVID-19.
As flying-foxes have evolved to be the only mammal capable of sustained flight, they have also developed a unique immune system that allows them to host many viruses without getting sick. Flying-foxes have been found to carry some coronaviruses, but none of those cause COVID-19 and all remain dormant within their systems.
Learn more about this phenomenon in this interview of Michelle Baker – the researcher who first sequenced the Australian Black flying-fox genome back in 2016.
Now for the second part.
Flying-foxes are highly intelligent mammals, capable of flying long distances. Their range covers essentially the entire Eastern seaboard and they cannot just be “moved on”. The only way to ever guarantee a flying-fox won’t roost somewhere, is to have no trees! They move to urban areas in search of food. Dispersals or “moving them on” is just scaring them and driving them away, without removing the reason why they moved there in the first place—food.
To put this scenario in a different context, this would be like going down to the beach every day with a large packet of hot chips and being bugged by seagulls. You have enough of being bugged by the seagulls, so one day you decide to yell and clap and chase the gulls to “move them on”. You then return the next day with more chips and expect the gulls to have flown away to another beach and never return. The gulls may move to the people next to you who each have small chips, but as you can see, this is not does not solve the issue and just shifts it somewhere else and at great cost.
In most circumstances, flying-foxes return to the same site or splinter into nearby sites after a dispersal. It is not a realistic expectation that flying-foxes can be “moved on” and it is not a sustainable way to manage an issue long-term across a large region.
Four preeminent Australian bat and wildlife disease researchers break down this very topic including why they are in urban areas and the issue of COVID on this website.
Short answer – Bad idea. That may be why we are at this point now.
The main fact is that the next pandemic will likely come from a wildlife source again, and it could be from any animal. It is well documented that stress on animals in the form of habitat loss, heat stress, starvation or other anthropogenic factors leads to viral spillover. This means that their immune systems are under more pressure and so they are more likely to get sick, and more importantly, more likely to shed their viruses for others to pick up.
You can think of this like when you are working overtime at work, you aren’t getting enough sleep, you have to commute or be away from home and you’re skipping lunch because you are so busy and then all of a sudden, you come down with a head cold when you can least afford to take time off. If you keep going to work, you are more likely to pick up something and also more likely to pass on your sickness to other people in the same situation.
This article written by climate, health and development experts outlines how continued pressure on the environment is the underlying cause of this pandemic and continuing on this trajectory will only heighten the future risk.
If you have a spare half an hour up your sleeves while making dinner one night and want to hear more about this, tune in to this podcast which takes “A close look at the bat-life, science, China’s wildlife trade, wet markets, diets, values - and the changing way we all live in landscapes everywhere”.
What happened to Australasian Bat Night?
Unfortunately, COVID restrictions forced the extremely popular Australasian Bat Night to be cancelled in April. Never fear though, the team has been working tirelessly to deliver the FIRST-EVER Digital Bat Night.
Flying-fox community news took some time off last issue to work on turning the outdoor festival into an online event. A whole swag of batty information will be coming at you in June!
Your favourite presenters Clancy Hall, Bat Rescue Inc, Geckoes Wildlife and more have put together a host of educational videos all about bats. There will also be some great learning resources and arts and crafts videos such as how to make bat origami, batty face painting and gel plate prints at home. Even Frankie is going digital!
Join the facebook event at 6:30pm, Wednesday 3 June. See you there.
Can’t make it to Bat Night?
That’s ok. All the resources will be online on Nature Connect, so you can look at them later.
To help share all the batty news, we have also partnered with the amazing Sunshine Coast Libraries to deliver an entire #BATWEEK from 1-5 June!
There will be many more books, articles, videos, podcasts, photos and docos on these superstar pollinators. Check it out all week here.
Les Hall Award and all your batty questions answered live
The five finalists have been announced for the Inaugural Les Hall Young Conservationist Award. All of these youth leaders are well deserving finalists and have achieved some incredible conservation outcomes in their respective fields.
Each of the projects from the five finalists will be displayed on Council’s facebook page every day of #batweek and interviews with the finalists will be showcased on World Environment Day on 5 June before the winner is announced live that night. Tune into the 40th annual WEDfest Facebook event to find out the winner of this very special award.
WEDfest will also offer the ability to ask any remaining Batty questions you may have to an actual bat researcher. Professor Stuart Parsons from QUT will be live on the WEDfest panel on Sunday 7 June and will be answering any bat-related questions.
Counting Camps and Council actions
As the weather cools down for winter, things tend to heat up for flying-fox management. Flying-foxes on the coast tend to migrate to different winter sites near the flowering paperbarks. This offers a great window for different actions to be taken at the summer roosts and reinforce buffers for residents to provide some relief if flying-foxes return next season.
As a consequence of previous environmental conditions (see December 2019 Flying-fox news) and the bushfires last summer, flying-foxes have shifted their range into SEQ to find refuge and any remaining habitat. This has resulted in many new roosts being occupied this season with new flying-foxes visiting the region and potentially even shifting those who usually hang out around the coast.
In each new site the same questions are posed. Will they stay long term? Will they return next season? How can we minimise the impact on residents now?
Flying-foxes are wild animals and there is currently no way to accurately predict where they will move and when they will leave. This is why council continually monitors sites, to collect more data and help understand why they moved there and predict where they may go in future. To help provide some relief to residents, council usually performs early intervention actions such as weed management or installing canopy mounted sprinkler systems to establish a buffer from properties.
In 2020 alone, there have been eight new sites reported across the Sunshine Coast. The video below shows how much the roosts have moved and changed in that time. It also compares April 2020 with the year before. April is generally when we see sites vacated after the breeding season.