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Pathogen spillover driven by rapid changes in bat ecology

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During recent decades, pathogens that originated in bats have become an increasing public health concern. A major challenge is to identify how those pathogens spill over into human populations to generate a pandemic threat1. Many correlational studies associate spillover with changes in land use or other anthropogenic stressors2,3, although the mechanisms underlying the observed correlations have not been identified4. One limitation is the lack of spatially and temporally explicit data on multiple spillovers, and on the connections among spillovers, reservoir host ecology and behavior, and viral dynamics. We present 25 years of data on land-use change, bat behavior, and spillover of Hendra virus from Pteropodid bats to horses in subtropical Australia. These data show that bats are responding to environmental change by persistently adopting behaviors that were previously transient responses to nutritional stress. Interactions between land-use change and climate now lead to persistent bat residency in agricultural areas, where periodic food shortages drive clusters of spillovers. Pulses of winter flowering of trees in remnant forests appeared to prevent spillover. We developed integrative Bayesian network models based on these phenomena that accurately predicted the presence or absence of clusters of spillovers in each of 25 years. Our long-term study identifies the mechanistic connections among habitat loss, climate, and increased spillover risk. It provides a framework for examining causes of bat virus spillover and for developing ecological countermeasures to prevent pandemics.

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Correspondence to Raina K. Plowright.

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Supplementary Information

This file contains details of the methods used to generate and analyse data for this study and extended supporting material that assists with the interpretation of long-term datasets. The file includes links to a Data Index that provides an overview of the datasets used in the study, descriptions of data fields, data sources, availability of data, the analyses the datasets contributed to, and the Supplementary Information sections where those analyses are described. Links are also provided to access the compiled input data for models and their output. The file includes methods for the multiscale Bayesian network model, methods used to generate data for the model, and context for interpreting the results.

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Eby, P., Peel, A.J., Hoegh, A. et al. Pathogen spillover driven by rapid changes in bat ecology. Nature (2022).

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