Collaboration and coronaviruses: Lunn brings interdisciplinary approach to disease ecology

Cheryth France
Tamika Lunn, a new assistant professor of ecology, holds a flying fox during fieldwork conducted in Australia. After collecting samples, the bats are released—the “best part of fieldwork,” according to Lunn. “The technique for release depends on the species. Bats with long, narrow wings often need height to catch air and take off, so we’ll throw them upward and watch them fly away. Bats with short, wide wings can take off from your hand, so we’ll hold our arm outstretched and wait for them to fly away,” she said. “Some bats take off immediately, but some will turn and watch you for a little while before leaving. That’s my favorite.” Editor’s note: All bats were handled with proper permits, training and vaccinations. (Photo: Devin Jones)

Bats deserve more than just a few weeks in the limelight each Halloween. The flying mammals are critical pollinators and pest control agents, according to Tamika Lunn, a disease ecologist and new assistant professor at the Odum School of Ecology. 

Lunn, a disease ecologist, explores why, when and where animals become infected with pathogens—information that could help predict and prevent spillover of diseases to humans. She joined the Odum School of Ecology faculty in January. (Photo: Sarah Chewning)

Lunn’s research focuses on bats, and a central thread explores why, when and where animals become infected with pathogens, to predict and prevent spillover of diseases to humans. Her research by nature intersects with many other disciplines. In studying zoonotic spillover (diseases that can complete their life cycles in animals, but can be transmitted to humans), she has to work with experts in human behavior, animal behavior, virology, mathematics and more. But collaboration is also simply something she loves. 

“The sharing of thoughts and ideas is something really enjoyable about science,” said Lunn. “I’m excited about the Odum School of Ecology, because it has a great reputation for disease ecology and ecology more broadly.”

But it was a long path to Athens—and a career in science itself.

Science beyond school

Lunn grew up on the Australian island-state of Tasmania, and though she spent her summers camping with family and “always loved the outdoors,” she never considered science as a career. 

“I grew up in a working-class town so I was exposed to more traditional jobs, like trades, or teaching and nursing,” explained Lunn. “I didn’t know that science could even be a job. It was a topic in school.” 

But she did want to work with animals. “My great ambition was to be a veterinary nurse’s assistant,” she said. 

But once she realized science was something she could pursue, she was hooked. She gained her Bachelor of Science with Honours, the Aussie equivalent of a combined bachelor and master’s, at the University of Tasmania. 

Her honors thesis focused on platypus, and she’d originally intended to examine research questions related to a fungal disease that causes skin lesions and mortality. Unluckily for Lunn—but perhaps good for the platypus population—none of the animals she caught were infected. 

“We decided to look at the effect of timber harvesting on the stream ecosystem and habitat suitability for platypus, and what impact, if any, this had on their stream use and population health,” Lunn said. “We didn’t detect any effect on platypus. This led us to believe that platypuses are fairly resilient.” 

Though she had to pivot lines of research, the experience was formative.

“That was my first introduction to really leading my own research project and exploring questions that I was interested in,” she said. She called on those skills for her Ph.D. at Griffith University and subsequent postdoc at the University of Arkansas. 

Bats are captured by setting mist nets at or above roosting height. For Kenyan insectivorous bats, nets are set at buildings and bridges at heights ranging from 3 to 26 feet. For Australian flying foxes, nets are set at trees using modified antenna poles up to 72 feet tall (a pulley system facilitates lowering the net). Bats are removed from nets immediately to minimize stress or injury. (Photo: Tamika Lunn)

Bat research in the pandemic age

For both, she studied bats, first examining Hendra virus in large flying foxes and then switching to small insectivorous bats in Africa, with a focus on coronaviruses and an ebolavirus (Bombali virus). She said—only partly joking—that she made the swap to bats because the animals are much easier to catch than the notoriously elusive platypus, but both her Ph.D. and postdoc offered the opportunity to study disease ecology at greater length. 

“For my postdoc, I was able to work with two extra virus groups that are really interesting in the infectious disease world that I hadn’t previously worked with,” she said.

She’d love to continue the work begun in Kenya on the interface between humans and bats, and what’s changing those interactions. Understanding zoonotic spillover is complex work. 

After samples have been collected, a Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat gets mango to replenish body fluids and electrolytes before being released. (Photo: Tamika Lunn)

“There are multiple requirements for spillover. You need to understand the distribution and density of the species, when and where they are infected, how long the virus can survive in the environment after it’s shed, if it’s coming into contact with humans,” Lunn said. “There’s also whether that virus can invade human cells and become established in the human body. Everything has to align perfectly in space and time for the pathogen to spill over. From an ecological perspective, spillover is incredibly unlikely.”

All those factors make her field hard to understand for the average layperson. But the COVID-19 pandemic contextualized her work for family and friends, who were unflaggingly supportive but didn’t necessarily understand why it’s important to study coronaviruses in insectivorous bats. Suddenly, the real-world value of Lunn’s work seemed self-evident. 

And like many disease ecologists, she was able to offer her two cents on headlines and trends, rendering a scary time a little more understandable for her circle. 

“Friends would often come to me with questions about COVID or coronaviruses,” she shared. “Maybe scientists predicted that X was going to happen, but it didn’t. So were they wrong? I was able to explain that we acted on that prediction, so that changed the future. If we hadn’t acted on it, their prediction might have come true.” 

Supporting species

Now, Lunn can’t wait to tackle new research with colleagues across Odum.

“There are so many great researchers that work from the Odum School. It’s really rare to get that number of people working on ecology in one space. Typically at a university, you might have a biology department and there might be a couple of ecologists, maybe one disease ecologist.”

“Dr. Lunn brings a fascinating and important new dimension to our research and teaching in the Odum School,” said Mark Hunter, dean. “Her work on bats is critical to understanding pathogen spillover while providing important information for bat conservation efforts.”

“At the River Basin Center, for example, they’re working on river ecosystems that bats are naturally connected to,” said Lunn. “Riparian areas are especially important for bats because they provide drinking water, high-quality foraging habitat, and high-quality roosting habitat. So it’d be really interesting to connect with the people working in that space as well.”

She’d also love to work with colleagues at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, a perfect spot to conduct her research. 

She’d love to collaborate beyond Odum, too. 

And in all her work, she wants to make sure conservation stays front and center. Sometimes, highlighting pathogens that a particular animal hosts can create tension between humans and wildlife. That’s something Lunn wants to mitigate through clear messaging about the value of her study systems and species. 

During fieldwork, Lunn collects a variety of samples from bats like this Cardioderma cor, or heart-nosed bat: urine, feces and saliva for viral diagnostics; blood for serology, blood pathogens and white blood cell counts; wing tissue for DNA analysis; hair for toxicology and endocrinology; and ectoparasites for parasite load and identification. She also records sex, age and reproductive status and measures weight and forearm length. (Photo: Tamika Lunn)

For anyone who enjoys a margarita on the weekend, for instance, she’s quick to point out that the agave in the drink’s signature tequila is pollinated by migratory bats. 

“In my research, I try to give back positively to a species,” she said. “Even doing things like advancing basic ecological knowledge is really important.”

Bats are classified as flying mammals under the order Chiroptera, or “hand wing.” The skeletal structure of a bat’s wing is similar to that of a human arm, with shoulder, elbow and wrist joints that lead to fingers—all covered by a thin membrane. (Photo: Reilly Jackson)

Editor’s note: All bats were handled with proper permits, training and vaccinations.