Flying foxes are often seen in large flocks in suitable areas and are considered by many as a pest species. When a flock settles in a camp in your area or backyard, the noise, smell and activities may understandably become distressing.
These numbers, however, betray the real situation for these unique creatures. Fruit bats are in real trouble.
The four species found in Australia range from North Queensland throughout the Great Dividing range as far as Adelaide. Some species are highly migratory and may venture far inland in search of the food that they depend upon.
Feeding primarily on blossom and the fruits of native trees, they occasionally eat domesticated fruit , causing financial losses for farmers.
Flying foxes however are keystone pollinators and dispersers of seed. Native forests rely on bats for propagating themselves and without them, forests will die and as a result our environment will collapse.
A fruit bat can travel around 50kms a night in search of food and their specialized teeth, tongue and palate are designed to extract the juice of their food, the blossom, nectar and fruits of our forests. In the process they swallow small seeds and later disperse them in their dung.
They form “camps” where they mate and later give birth to their pups. At first the pups cling to their mothers for warmth and hang on to her body while the mother flies while foraging. After 3 weeks the pups remain in the roosts while mum travels away to feed.
At present, large numbers of bats are starving to death on the Coast. Lack of food and habitat are decimating their numbers. Here in New England, in past years, we have had large numbers of pups which died in a late cold snap and many surviving pups had to be rehabbed and returned to the Coast to be released.
Many are trapped in unsuitable garden netting. Any netting with mesh large enough to put a finger through can be fatal to bats, birds, lizards, Sugargliders and snakes. Small mesh pulled taught and secured to a frame, is a preferable option. Bats are commonly caught on barbed wire fences where their wing webbing is caught, torn and damaged, an event that often results in their death.
Flying foxes can carry Australian lyssavirus, a serious disease for humans and in some cases, fatal. Luckily the transmission of this disease, directly from bat to humans is rare but blood and scratches are the most likely method of transmission. As widely disseminated, Hendra can also be carried by bats and horses are thought to be an intermediate vector of Hendra virus. Horses can infect humans though horses can be vaccinated against Hendra. Scientists are still split on the exact method of transmission of Hendra.
Due to this risk, people should not attempt to handle a distressed bat. Instead, local wildlife rescue groups should be contacted and here in Uralla, we have specialist flying fox rescuers. Distressed bats should be reported immediately to assist in a positive outcome. These are an important, iconic species and specialist handling is essential to get them back to the forests where they belong.
By Chris Baker
Originally published in Uralla Wordsworth