More About Flying Foxes and Microbats
For far too long, bats have instilled fear and inspired bad omens in many cultures around the world. Vilified in the media, these deeply misunderstood and misrepresented creatures are incredibly unique animals that play a vital role in Australia’s ecosystem. In a world where attitudes towards sustainability are continuously changing and evolving, it is vital that people today move away from misinformed historical stereotypes in order to develop a strong understanding and appreciation for this amazing creature, the only mammal capable of sustained flight.
There are over 1000 different species of bats worldwide. Bats are classified into two major groups: Flying Foxes and Microbats. Both share many similarities with humans: they have a similar skeletal structure (they have elongated fingers, not wings that they fly with), are warm-blooded, give birth and suckle their young, are devoted and caring mothers and even leave their children (called pups) at ‘childcare’ as they go in search of food! Most species can only give birth to one pup per year. Infants are carried everywhere by their mothers and suckled for up to five months. Bats are not aggressive animals. Bats do not ‘swoop’ or ‘attack’. If spooked, a bat will fly away but because they have hands and fingers rather than wings, they must drop or fall in order to catch the wind that will provide them with the lift necessary to sustain their flight.
Flying Foxes or Megabats, are the largest sized bats (they also used to be known as Fruit Bats, but Flying Fox is the term that is used today). A Flying Fox has extremely good eyesight (the same as ours during the day and 25% better at night) and hearing and use these, and their strong sense of smell, to navigate the world. They are not blind and do not use echolocation. Flying Foxes are a keystone species in Australia meaning they are one of the most vital animals in our ecosystem.
Flying Foxes play a key role in ensuring we have healthy coastal forests. Australian native trees reproduce by releasing and accepting pollen for fertilisation. After a flower on a tree is fertilised via pollination, the new genetic materials combine to produce seeds that then need to be distributed to other locations, away from the parent trees. Flying Foxes play an essential role in these processes. Flying Foxes and our native forests have coevolved together for over 40 million years (yes, 40, 000, 000!), which means they have perfected the process of forest reproduction.
Our native trees only release their flowers’ pollen at night, specifically for the Flying Foxes to pick up. Flying Foxes have the exact soft belly fur needed to collect and carry as much pollen as possible while they fly from flower to flower. As the Flying Foxes move from flower to flower, drinking nectar, they pass along the pollen they collect on their bellies. This process fertilises the plant’s flowers.
Bees also do this role: however, as pollination occurs at night, Flying Foxes are more effective. Furthermore, bees can only travel up to three kilometers and so cannot introduce new genetic material from other forest locations. The Flying Fox is capable of travelling over 100 kilometers per night and can fly from one forest to another, introducing new genetic material that will strengthen the resilience of the new generation of forests.
Indeed, it is predicted that Australia’s forests will only survive climate change due to Flying Foxes introducing new genetic material to the next generation of trees. For example, one forest might not like much water, and a bee will keep that gene pool the same, but a Flying Fox might fly from a forest that likes lots of water,100 kilometres away, and introduce this new gene to the area. In doing so, the new generation of trees in that forest will be resilient to both drought or flood conditions.
Not only do Flying Foxes pollinate our native forests, they also eat the seeds from the fruit and disperse them to new areas so that the young trees can grow. Other animals do this, but a Flying Fox can digest the seed in a way that does not harm the seed, and when it is excreted, it can grow into a new plant. The process of chewing and digestion in other
animals can ruin the seed, making the seed non-viable for growth. A Flying Fox can distribute up to 3000 seeds in a single night! Their role as a keystone species means that
Australian tree species, all Australian mammals such as koalas who seek shelter and food in these trees, Australian fruit trees and the Australian hardwood industry are all reliant upon the existence of the Flying Fox. In this way, humans are also dependent on Flying Foxes via the forests they sustain, as the forests supply us with oxygen, food and resources.
The second category of bat in Australia is the Microbat. This small bat plays an equally important role in the Australian ecosystem. Unlike the Flying Fox, the Microbat has extremely
bad eyesight and relies on echolocation for travel and food. Microbats are insectivorous and are capable of catching up to 500 insects per hour. The Microbats’ incredible ability to
consume large numbers of insects such as mosquitoes and fruit flies means that life would be far less tolerable for both humans and plant species without them. It is interesting to know that Microbat boxes are being installed by universities, schools, farmers and the general public in an effort to reduce the use of pesticides within the environment and eradicate mosquito related diseases such as Ross-River fever.
Considering the key role both Flying Foxes and Microbats play in Australia’s ecosystem, it is unfortunate that the biggest threats to the species are habitat loss and ignorance and misinformation leading to poor human perception.
People usually hold the misconception that bats carry lots of diseases. This is untrue. Science shows that there is only ONE disease that a human can catch from a bat: the Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV). It is a form of rabies, but it is really, really rare. There have only been three reported cases in Australia. ABLV is very rare in the bat community, and most bats that contract this disease leave the colony and die within a few days. A person would have to be bitten by a bat within a small window of time (within those few days) to become infected. This is why the World Health Organisation considers it one of the rarest diseases on the planet! Contact with bat excrement, bat-eaten fruit, or having a bat fly above you will NOT transmit this disease. However, if bitten or scratched by ANY bat, all Australian government departments and bat groups strongly recommend people go to the hospital where they will receive a series of three post-bite injections (free of charge) that will ensure they do not get ABLV. There is no reason why any person should contract or die of ABLV as injections are available in Australia to stop this disease. If you do catch ABLV and do not receive the injections, you WILL die.
It is important that if a person is bitten or scratched by ANY animal, to consult a medical professional, and if it is a bat, they should get the injections from the hospital. Horses, cows, dogs and cats are dramatically more likely to cause human deaths than bats are.
Never touch a sick or injured bat, if you get bitten or scratched by a bat seek medical attention as soon as possible and if you find a bat, it is best to notify your local bat (or animal) rescue and conservation organisation.
Source: Project Leader and Curriculum Developer: Dr. Alison Sammel