"The Scientist And The Bats"

"Funders thought watching bats wasn’t important. Then she helped solve the mystery of a deadly virus."

"Dressed head-to-toe in protective gear, Peggy Eby crawled on her hands and knees under a fig tree, searching for bat droppings and fruit with telltale fang marks.

Another horse in Australia had died from the dreaded Hendra virus that winter in 2011. For years, the brain-inflaming infectious disease had bedeviled the country, leaping from bats to horses and sometimes from horses to humans. Hendra was as fatal as it was mysterious, striking in a seemingly random fashion. Experts fear that if the virus mutates, it could jump from person to person and wreak havoc.

So while government veterinarians screened other horses, Eby, a wildlife ecologist with a Ph.D., got to work, grubbing around the scene like a detective. Nobody knew flying foxes, the bats that spread Hendra, better. For nearly a quarter century, she’d studied the furry, fox-faced mammals with wingspans up to 3 feet. Eby deduced that the horse paddock wasn’t where the bats had transmitted Hendra. But the horse’s owners had picked mandarin oranges off the trees across the street. The peels ended up in the compost bin, where their horse liked to rummage. “Bingo,” Eby thought. Flying foxes liked mandarins. The bats’ saliva must have contaminated the peels, turning them into a deadly snack."

Caroline Chen reports for ProPublica with photography by Kathleen Flynn May 22, 2023.

Source: ProPublica, 05/23/2023