Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists are using novel technologies to track the long-distance movements of Indian flying foxes in Southeast Asia, a first for this species. This information is vital to studying the regional movement of potentially fatal diseases that reside within these marvelous bats.
Large fruit bats, such as these flying foxes, may travel up to about 310 miles (500 kilometers) from their roosting sites in search of food, with colony groupings approaching nearly 1 million individuals. Migration patterns allow for the exchange of latent diseases, such as Niphah, Hendra and rabies, among many others, prior to their return to roosting sites. Because these sites are often found in areas of livestock and human populations, these bats play a very important role in disease transmission and the potential for catastrophic disease outbreak. Recent developments in tracking technology have granted researchers the ability to peer into this unknown factor of disease movement.
Smithsonian’s Global Health Program researchers Drs. Jennifer Kishbaugh and Marc Valitutto have planned a project focused in Myanmar, a previously under-researched area of Southeast Asia for wildlife disease tracking. The project benefits from a collaboration with Smithsonian’s Movement of Life initiative, which aims to advance the understanding of how living things move across changing land and seascapes to better sustain a biodiverse planet. It also builds on GHP’s activities through the U.S. Agency for International Development's PREDICT Myanmar, utilizing the skills of the local team associates and the data currently being collected by the PREDICT team.
The tracking collars selected for this project are unique, enabling the team to study long-term movements of bats over a period of months. The data collection relies on the remote download of GPS data and ensures that the bats undergo one capture for collar placement, minimizing health and livelihood impact to the target species.
The results of this novel study will allow researchers to not only identify the flight paths and feeding sites of these bats, but also to aid in identification of additional, previously unknown, interface areas that could pose a threat to human and domestic animal health. By tying the movement data to known disease-carrying states of bats, along with the identification of sites of interaction between bats of different sites and species, this information will enable researchers to identify new potential risk factors for disease contraction. It may also lend guidance into bat behavior and help to identify methods for preventing zoonotic disease transmission.
The remote GPS data download system with collar design was developed in partnership with Lotek technologies. This study was made possible thanks to generous funding and support from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee and the contributions of USAID PREDICT Myanmar field staff.