LAST week’s heatwave saw temperatures soar above 40 degrees celcius in the Hawkesbury, and wildlife including flying-foxes were outside bearing the brunt of the heat.
But thanks to a flying-fox conservation tool developed by Western Sydney University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (HIE) together with the University of Melbourne, CSIRO, and the Bureau of Meteorology, wildlife carers were able to mobilise more quickly in their efforts to save heat-stressed animals.
Flying-foxes die from hyperthermia at temperatures beyond 42 degrees celcius, sometimes with catastrophic consequences for their species.
In November last year, an extreme heatwave in Queensland killed-off over a third of the entire country’s population of spectacled flying-foxes - a vulnerable species - culling 30,000 of the population of 75,000.
Dr Justin Welbergen, a senior lecturer in animal ecology at HIE and president of the Australalasian Bat Society, has long been at the forefront of research and awareness raising around the impacts of extreme heat on flying-foxes, and was part of the team responsible for developing the Flying Fox Heat-Stress Forecaster.
It helps stakeholders including wildlife carers, land managers and public health officials identify where and when flying-fox die-offs are likely to occur, up to 72 hours into the future.
“Historically, wildlife carers used to look at the normal weather forecast, and be aware of local flying-fox camps,” said Dr Welbergen.
“When temperatures were predicted to be high, they’d go out and observe those camps, rescue any heat-stressed individuals, rehabilitate them for up to six months, and release them back into the wild.
“The Forecaster makes the process of identifying the camps much more efficient, as it generates a priority list of camps most likely to be affected.”
Generator outputs include up-to-date maps of affected areas, hourly temperature profiles of affected camps, and a list that prioritises camps by date, maximum temperature, and the number of flying-foxes present.
In the lead-up to last week’s heatwave, the tool predicted that at least 37 flying-fox camps across Victoria and NSW would experience dangerously high temperatures.
The Forecaster has been operational for around two years, and 100 people across Australia - mostly on the east coast - have signed-up to use the online tool.
This includes land managers who use the tool to work out which flying-fox camps are likely to scatter due to the heat, and public health officials who are able to more accurately distribute information to healthcare professionals in areas where contact between flying-foxes and humans could occur due to scattered camps.
In the Hawkesbury, we have grey-headed flying-foxes (a vulnerable species) and black flying-foxes, and there are a number of local camps including at Windsor and Yarramundi.
Flying-foxes are extremely important to our area’s forest ecosystems, as they spread pollen seeds and help maintain the genetic diversity of our forests.
They are extremely mobile, with individuals constantly flying in and out of camps to other camps around the country.
Dr Welbergen said the Flying Fox Heat-Stress Forecaster was the first of its kind in the world, and would become an even more important tool for stakeholders in the future due to climate change.
“These extreme heat events are a very serious and ongoing issue for the conservation and management of flying-foxes,’ he said.
“This issue is set to escalate under climate change, which does not bode well for flying-foxes and other wildlife in Australia and beyond.”
People who find stressed or dead flying-foxes and other wildlife are warned not to handle them as they can carry Australian bat lyssavirus, closely related to the rabies virus.
Instead, residents are urged to immediately phone WIRES on 1300 094 737.
Find the Flying Fox Heat-Stress Forecaster at www.animalecologylab.org/ff-heat-stress-forecaster.