The Missunderstood Mammal: The Grey-headed Flying Fox

The grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) is a relatively large nectar feeding bat, endemic to south eastern Australia. Like most bats in the world, the grey-headed flying fox has attracted a negative attitude from people, particularly from people living near a roosting site mainly due to their noise, smell, association with disease and degradation to trees. The grey-headed flying fox has been particularly ridiculed compared to other bat species with the primary reason being the simple fact that their distribution overlaps with human habitation more so than other flying fox species. For those who don’t know, the grey-headed flying fox is actually classed as a vulnerable species. I get the same comment from everyone when I tell them this; “But there are so many of them?”. It’s true, there are a lot, however this is only a tiny fraction of the population that there use to be before urbanisation. With our current negative association with these bats, and ever increasing urbanisation, the population of these guys is only set to decrease.

In this species of the week, I am going highlight some amazing and interesting facts, debunk some myths and hopefully sway your opinion of them, as they are important and remarkable creatures, and not to mention quite adorable.

 

Fuzzy and adorable - Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Fuzzy and adorable – Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

I would like to first talk about the preconceived myth that all bats are disease ridden. While it is true that the grey-headed flying fox is a carrier of the infamous Lyssavirus, and the less infamous hendra virus, it is not true that all bats have these. In fact it is estimated less than 1% of grey-headed flying have Lyssavirus. It is also very hard to catch Lyssavirus; the virus can only be transmitted if the saliva of a bat comes into contact with an open wound or mucous membrane (e.g. eye ball, mouth etc.). If you did potentially contract it, the virus is completely preventable. Hendra virus on the other hand cant be caught from bats directly, however there is evidence that it can be transmitted from bats to horses, then horses to humans. Overall the easy way to avoid these diseases is simple: don’t touch touch or handle bats and practice good hygiene around sick horse. If you do come into contact with a bat, see a doctor immediately for precautionary reasons. If you do come across an injured bat, simply contact WIRES rescue line: 13 00 094 737.




Now that, that is out of the way, we can start talking about their amazing ecology. The grey-headed flying fox is an incredibly sociable creature, living in large camp by day (often several thousand), and flying (often several kilometers) at night to find food. Recent studies have shown that there is a large amount of dispersal between roost sites, so a bat that is at Kareela one night, may decide to camp in Parramatta the next night.

They are very interactive and cheeky to each other, which is both adorable and hilarious to watch. Their constant bickering and antics are actually a sign of advanced vocal communication, with at least 20 different sounds (or words), in their vocabulary.

 

Kareela Camp, Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Kareela Camp, Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

These bats are incredibly important ecologically, as they are major pollinators of Eucalypt trees and are good at dispersing seeds of fruit bearing plants (e.g. figs). Other pollinators such as possums and insects usually cannot reach the very tops of the canopy to pollinate the taller tree species. That’s where flying foxes come in. These animals play an integral role in preserving the genetic integrity of Eucalypt species across the east coast of Australia.

 

Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

Hopefully I have swayed your opinion on these fascinating creatures. We need to cut them some slack, as they are an animal with an ever decreasing population. I implore you to all to take a moment and marvel at all the bats in the sky at dusk when they go to feed. To truly understand them, go and sit down near a camp and watch their playful antics. You will love them in no time. And for the minority of people who buy a house near a bat camp, then complain about them, please use some logic: if you don’t like bats, simply don’t buy a house next to a bat colony!

Thank you for reading!