PhD and Post-Doc Research

Climate change and the impacts of extreme events on Australia's Wet Tropics Biodiversity
Dr Justin Welbergen
Centre for Tropical Biodiversity & Climate Change
School of Marine and Tropical Biology
James Cook University

One of the greatest unknowns in global climate change science is how changes in extreme events will impact on the natural world. Emerging evidence strongly suggests that changes in the frequency, duration and intensity of extreme events (e.g., heat waves) will be even more important than gradual increases in climatic means in driving ecological responses to climatic change. Our research program examines what drives vulnerability of terrestrial biodiversity to temperature extremes in order to make robust predictions of impacts under future climate scenarios.

Justin Welbergen and Johan

It focuses on a model ecosystem (Australian Wet Tropics bioregion), known to be under threat from climate change (Williams, Bolitho & Fox 2003), and on a model taxonomic group (flying-foxes), known to be vulnerable to extreme heat events (e.g., Welbergen et al. 2008).

Our work at the Tolga Bat Hospital is part of our broader efforts to produce accurate estimates of the thermal sensitivity of the Wet Tropics vertebrates. The information will help us quantify the vulnerability of these animals to extreme temperature events, which is crucial for predicting the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and for preserving Australia's unique natural ecosystems in this century and beyond.

Williams, S. E., Bolitho, E. E. & Fox, S. 2003. Climate change in Australian tropical rainforests: an impending environmental catastrophe. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 270, 1887-1892.
Welbergen, J. A., Klose, S. M., Markus, N. & Eby, P. 2008. Climate change and the effects of temperature extremes on Australian flying-foxes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 275, 419-425.


Photos: Flying foxes will commonly use wing-fanning to cool themselves. As temperatures rise further they will seek shade by coming down onto the trunk of the tree under the canopy . Thermal imaging has shown the trunk to be significantly cooler than the surrounding air. When these strategies are no longer adequate, panting and licking can be effective but the loss of body water is significant. At this stage they face death. There have been several mass deaths in the last decade where up to 8000 animals have died in one day.

Tasmin Rymer, James Cook University 2012-13
Pesonality Differences and social transmission of information about novel food in a captive colony of Spectacled flying foxes.

Tasmin is primarily interested in animal behaviour, particularly parental care. Her main research areas have been looking at how behaviour develops and how it is expressed (genetics vs. learning) She will trace how the young learn food preferences, whether via olfactory cues or earlier chemical cues across the placenta.

The study will be conducted in a series of stages. Firstly we will assess individual adult food preferences of adults from a captive colony of Spectacled flying foxes housed at Tolga Bat Hospital.

In the control treatment, individuals will be observed by video camera for 15 minutes from entry into the feeding enclosure. We will record 1) the latency to approach a food item (i.e. how long it takes to approach food); 2) the type of food item approached first; 3) the duration of time spent sniffing/feeding on that item (i.e. how long the individual feeds on that type of fruit); and 4) the frequency and duration of visits to other food items (i.e. how often it moves to another food item and how long it feeds there). This will give a baseline assessment of individual food preference.

In the novel food treatment, a novel food item (i.e. one the bats have not encountered previously) will be introduced into the feeding enclosure. Novel foods will include strawberries, honey and fruit from Syzygium fibrosum.Individuals will again be observed for 15 minutes from entry. We will record 1) the latency to approach the novel food (i.e. this gives an indication of neophobia – fear of novel food); and 2) the duration of time spent sniffing/feeding on the novel item.


Secondly, we will assess inter-generational transfer of information between mothers and offspring. The same control procedure as above will be followed. Up to 20 pregnant females will be assessed for individual food preferences. Pregnant females will also be exposed to a novel food item treatment. Ten will be exposed to one type of novel food, while ten will be exposed to another type. After assessment of neophobia, pregnant females will be exposed to their respective novel food every day until the offspring is born. This will be done to ensure that these females eat the novel food.

On the day offspring are born, the novel food will not be presented to the 10 of the mothers again (5 from each novel food type), while the other 10 mothers will continue to receive the novel food. This will allow us to assess whether offspring learn about novel foods via gustatory cues from the milk (or chemical cues crossing the placenta during development) or whether they learn from olfactory cues on the mother's breath.

Offspring will be tested once they start eating solid food (2-3 months). The offspring will be removed from their mothers for 20 minutes. This is not detrimental to the pups as the females will leave them in nursery groups to go foraging. The pups will be allowed to acclimatise to the feeding enclosure for 5 minutes. They will then be exposed to both novel food types (i.e. the one their mother experienced and the one experienced by other mothers) for 15 minutes and the same behavioural measures will be recorded as for the adults in the individual preference trials (see above). Pups will be returned to their mothers at the end of the trial period. Pups will be marked by wearing differently coloured Velcro collars and adults by being microchipped

Tasmin Rymer, James Cook University 2013


We will look at the consumption of salt by 4 Australian species of flying fox at the Tolga Bat Hospital. Stable isotope studies by CSIRO on Spectacled flying foxes have shown that mangrove provides about 13 % of their diet, and anecdotally flying foxes are frequently observed drinking from sea water and brackish water. Some institutions in USA provide flying floxes with salt licks but the Bat Hospital provides salt in drink bottles at the rate of 4 gms to 2 litres. Generally about twice as much salt water is comsumed conpared to fresh water. Both fresh and salt water bottles hang together so the choice is always theirs. The lids of the bottles are green for salt and red for fresh.

The only mention of this in the literature is a paper by Iudica and Bonaccorsro in Mammalia 2003 Anecdotal observations of sea water ingestion by flying foxes of the genus Pteropus.

Ina Smith, PhD
New and Emerging Zoonotic Diseases CSIRO, Australian Animal Health Laboratory, Geelong

We collected 233 bat flies and 99 ticks duringt he 2012 tick season. They will be used to determine if they play a role in disease transmission in bats.

Australian Museum, Sydney 2013

The DNA laboratory at the Museum was involved in a national project to identify animals that come down as a result of plane strike. They requested DNA samples (wing biopsies) from 3 species of flying fox we have in care to help build a reliable DNA database on the four species of Australian flying fox. Plane strike usually results in only a blood smear/tissue of the animal from the plane.

David Westcott PHD
Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO, Atherton 2010

We provided some Spectacled flying foxes in our care with a diet that included markers to detemine how fast food is incorporated into the tissues of the animal, in this case hair.


David Westcott PHD
Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO, Atherton 2009

We provided 100 dead Spectacled flying foxes from the 2008 tick season for stable isotope research. All animals were found dying of tick paralysis and assessed to be non-viable for treatment. Analysis of the hair had some interesting results, showing that the diet of SFFs is quite variable.


Samantha Fox, James Cook University

Population Structure in the Spectacled Flying Fox, a study of genetic and demographic factors 2006

Supervisors: Drs David Blair, Michelle Waycott and Jon Luly from (JCU), Dr David Westcott from CSIRO

The project, involving the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Queensland Fruit and Vegetable Growers, the Tolga Bat Hospital and JCU used genetic fingerprinting to attempt to trace the movements of the Spectacled flying-fox. Microsatellite and Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism (AFLP) genetic markers were used to identify individual flying-foxes killed by tick paralysis. Some wild-caught bats were also used in the study.

The project also determined the age structure of SFFs from the Tolga colony dying as a result of tick paralysis. Canine teeth were taken from all dead bats over 2 tick paralysis seasons, and a cross-sectional analysis performed on the layers of cementum in the root of the tooth. The research is based on a paper published by Dr Simon Cool from the University of Queensland in 1994, Age Estimation of Pteropid Bats (Megachiroptera) from Hard Tissue Parameters.

Sam lived at the Bat Hospital for several months during the 2004 tick season. She accompanied us on searches in the camps, and when back at the hospital took teeth from the dead and euthanased, and wing biopsies from the dead and living.

* Molecular markers, both mitochondrial (d-loop sequences) and nuclear microsatellites, were developed for use with the spectacled flying-fox (SFF). The markers have already been shown to be of use with related flying fox species.
* These markers allowed us to demonstrate that spectacled flying foxes move freely within their geographical range, and that present and/or past migrations have occurred between New Guinea and Australia.
* We were able to estimate population size (within broad limits).
* Historical events influencing the distribution of the spectacled flying fox were inferred from genetic data.
* Bands in teeth from over 300 bats were analysed to yield a picture of the demographic structure of the SFF. This part of the work indicated that populations can only grow very slowly and that any factors reducing survivorship could easily lead to population decline. This is noteworthy given that the species has been listed as "vulnerable" by the Federal Government.
* Because of the free-ranging nature of SFFs as demonstrated by the genetic work, extermination of colonies near fruit farms would be unlikely to provide long-term reduction of attacks on crops.
*We demonstrated that hybridisation can occur with the black flying fox (BFF).

Further information is available at the website, search Samantha Fox

Tolga Bat Hospital -
5 mm hole punch. We carefully avoided all blood vessels in the wing while obtaining the sample. However while nearly all holes healed very readily, some remained and therefore grew as the wing grew. We wonder whether samples are best obtained from a piece of wing at the end of a blood vessel. The bats rarely seemed worried by the wing punch procedure.

Alexandra Coghlan, Department of Toursim, James Cook University

Towards an Understanding of the Volunteer Tourism Experience 2005

Supervisors: Primary Supervisor: Professor Philip Pearce, Secondary Supervisor: Dr. Laurie Murphy

A researcher with a strong interest in wildlife conservation, Ali had completed a B.Sc. in environmental and marine biology at St-Andrews University, with an honours degree in ecotourism. Two years working as a guide for a whale-watching operation, followed by a third year working as a research assistant in the whale-watching industry prompted her to undertake a PhD degree in tourism, in an effort to link the two areas. By combining tourism and wildlife conservation, she believes that it is possible to gain public support for conservation and increase the personal relevance of wildlife protection for the general public.

The aim of her research was be to understand the expectations of volunteers, and the benefits they receive for their efforts. This understanding may help organisations build higher levels of volunteer involvement, satisfaction and commitment by matching the volunteer's expected benefits and benefits that they provide. This will, in turn, hopefully lead to a more sustained on-site conservation effort from volunteer tourists.

Research on volunteer tourism wass a relatively new area in 2004 and included few studies on the profile of volunteer tourists and the typology of volunteer tourism conservation organisations. Little was known about how volunteer tourists perceive their experience and how satisfaction with their experience affects their involvement with, and commitment to, conservation efforts. Understanding these elements is important as volunteers form the backbone of such organisations. By giving their time, energy and funds, volunteer tourists enable vital conservation projects to be carried out. In return, the tourists participate in a unique experience, develop new skills, discover a new way of life, and learn about themselves.

Ali used our volunteers for her pilot study, and came back a few months later to use us again for part of the main research. A number of other well-known volunteering conservation organisations around the world were included in the research project.

The aim of this study was to apply previous research of tourist and volunteer behaviour to the field of volunteer tourism in order to understand the expectations of volunteer tourists as well as the benefits they seek, and receive, for their efforts. The results of this research will help generate an even more sustained conservation effort from each conservation volunteer and a higher level of overall productivity, benefiting your organisation and conservation efforts in general.

The data obtained through this study formed the basis of her PhD thesis, and presented us with many benefits, such as:

•  A new and interesting piece of market research;

•  A better understanding of the expectations and requirements of your volunteers;

•  Increased effectiveness of promotional material;

•  Raise the profile of volunteer tourism by highlighting its social and environmental benefits as well as its links between tourism and conservation;

•  Help to promote the efforts of conservation organisations, such as Tolga Bat Hospital.

Epidemiology of tick paralysis in spectacled flying-foxes (Pteropus conspicillatus) on the Atherton Tableland,Further information is available at the website, search Alexandra Coghlan