Flying foxes breed only once a year, but they really make the most of it. The fun starts in February, when female flying foxes move between 'camps' (large gatherings of flying foxes) and stop over with a particular male. The pair mate many times in the next few days, although it's all just practice, because at this stage the female is not yet fertile.
Flying foxes have gained a reputation as a nuisance in Australia. They are noisy and sometimes smelly when they roost in urban areas. They will raid orchards and have destroyed some important trees in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney and Melbourne. But there is another side to this story.
Flying fox numbers have plummeted by 30 per cent in the past decade. Mostly this is due to their natural habitat and food source disappearing. Flying foxes eat gum blossoms, which mostly grows in the tall coastal eucaplypt forests of eastern Australia. This area is also in demand from humans, and vast areas of coastal forest have been cleared to make way for new urban development.
When blossoms are in short supply, hungry flying foxes will raid orchards to find food. In retaliation, farmers will shoot, poison or trap them.
Unfortunately, the fruiting season coincides with the final stages of flying fox pregnancy and lactation. Chances are, any females killed while eating orchard fruit will be pregnant or nursing a baby. Either way, both mother and baby will die.
Can flying foxes give you rabies? We now know that flying foxes can be infected with a rabies-like disease called bat lyssavirus. Only a small number of wild animals are infective and the infection can only be spread from bat to human through the animal's saliva or possibly through scratches.
So, just being near a roost will not put you at risk of being infected. Health regulations now stipulate that anyone who handles bats of any species should first be vaccinated against rabies.
Flying foxes have now been listed as a vulnerable species, and in the next few years there may be a total ban on killing them. To appease farmers, state governments are investigating the possiblity of subsidising netting, to prevent foxes getting to their crops. But where will flying foxes find their food?
It is important to ensure that enough of their natural habitat, coastal eucalypt forests, is protected to maintain a viable population of these extraordinary creatures. Flying foxes play a significant role in maintaining the forest ecosystem. When they eat fruit and browse on blossoms, they carry seed and pollen from tree to tree, thus spreading the gene pool around and helping to regenerate isolated pockets of forest. If the bats go, this living corridor will also disappear.
- Bats have sex all year round but only produce one baby in April.
- They mate hanging upside down.
- The strong smell of flying foxes is not caused by bat droppings. It comes from an odour the males secrete from glands when they are competing with each-other for females and roosting sites. The smell can be overpowering when tens of thousands of bats roost together in the one colony.
- Australia has 90 species of bats, but only four eat fruit, nectar and pollen- all the rest prefer insects.
- Each baby has an individual smell which the mother uses to locate it.
- Flying foxes, unlike many bats, are not 'blind', but actually have good night vision.
- Flying foxes can live for up to 20 years.
- Flying foxes have at least 20 different calls which are used for communication
- Australia's population of grey headed flying fox Pteropus poliocephalus has declined by 30 per cent in the past decade.
- The main threat to flying foxes is from the clearing of coastal forests which they rely on for blossoms.
- Farmers have culled flying foxes since early settlement, using electrocution, shooting, explosives and chemicals.