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Cecilia Sánchez receives National Geographic Early Career Grant

Nov. 8, 2017

Writer: Beth Gavrilles, bethgav@uga.edu

Contact: Cecilia Sánchez, cecilia.sanchez@uga.edu

Cecilia Sánchez, a doctoral candidate in the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology, has received a National Geographic Early Career Grant to further her research on Australian flying foxes. She seeks to understand the foraging behavior of these fruit bats that have recently begun settling in urban areas as human activities have destroyed their historic habitat and also provided new food sources. This change in behavior has implications for the health of the bats themselves as well as for people, as flying foxes are able to transmit viruses that can cause fatal diseases in humans.

The National Geographic Society awards Early Career Grants for innovative projects in conservation, education, research, storytelling and technology to individuals who haven’t yet received an advanced degree or equivalent.

Sánchez will use her grant to study Australian flying foxes with a focus on understanding how urbanization affects their movement, diet, and disease.

Australia’s fruit bats have historically been nomadic, travelling to find food as trees blossom in different locations, and playing an important role as pollinators and seed dispersers. Recently, however, a population of grey-headed flying foxes have settled permanently in the city of Adelaide, attracted by gardens with non-native and cultivated plants that provide food year-round.

This can cause problems for both bats and people.

Grey-headed flying foxes, one of four species of flying fox found on mainland Australia, are listed as Vulnerable under the country’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Besides changing their diet, which has as-yet unknown consequences for the bats’ nutrition and health, urban settlement brings them into more frequent contact—and potential conflict—with people and domestic animals. Flying foxes can carry both Hendra virus and Australian bat lyssavirus, which is a close relative of rabies; both can be fatal to humans.

In 2016 Sánchez tested the feasibility of using lightweight GPS loggers to track the foraging movements of a small subset of the flying foxes in Adelaide. She programmed the loggers to record the bats’ positions throughout the night, and used a non-irritating glue to attach them to the bats’ backs. The two-week pilot study revealed that some bats were repeat customers, returning again and again to the same food sources within six miles of their roost, while others traveled farther afield and fed at many different sites.

The next phase of Sánchez’s research will expand this foraging movement research. Working with partners from the University of Adelaide, the South Australian Museum, and the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, she will use GPS loggers to collect more data from a larger group of bats. This will include bat demographics and information about acceleration, speed and altitude in flight as well as foraging locations and travel patterns.

What she learns will be useful to Adelaide’s city officials and public health officers tasked with managing the local bat population, but will also provide insights to anyone seeking to conserve or manage the growing numbers of wildlife in urban areas.

“Adelaide is a great case study for understanding how flying foxes are responding to resource shifts associated with urbanization,” said Sánchez. “We know very little about this colony of bats, and these lightweight GPS loggers allow us to uncover exciting aspects of their behavior and ecology that were previously hidden.”

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