As darkness descends across the eastern coast of Australia, thousands of gray-headed flying foxes take to the skies. Armed with a keen sense of smell and sharp night vision, they roam to find food after resting all day. Some might travel as far as 30 miles in one night, foraging for fruits such as figs and pollinating trees as they go.

Gray-headed flying foxes are actually the largest native bat species in Australia, with wingspans up to three feet. They’re found nowhere else in the world. But as urbanization destroys their forest habitat and droughts make food scarce, their population has plummeted. Though the bats numbered in the millions in the early 1900s, fewer than 400,000 may exist today. The species is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

With less of their natural habitat remaining, the bats are forced to seek food closer to people, bringing them into contact with new threats. Mesh netting over urban fruit trees can wrap around them when they try to eat, and barbed wire, a fixture on many Australian farms, might snare the bats as they fly. Some residents of cities are not happy to share their neighborhoods with congregations of flying foxes, which can be noisy at dusk and dawn, and generate lots of poop.

As a result, local governments try to disperse the “camps”—each one could include thousands of bats—with smoke guns, loud noises or fireworks. It’s not an effective strategy, as the bats have a tendency to move between roosts.

“They’re continually replacing each other,” says Clare Wynter, flying fox coordinator with Canberra-based rescue organization ACT Wildlife. “You don’t have one bat coming back to the same place every night. So, they’re not really going to learn not to come back.”

Australia’s bushfire season of 2019 to 2020 was devastating to the flying fox population, killing tens of thousands. But the fires also represented a turning point for the bats’ reputation. Because they fly long distances during their nightly travels, the bats play a pivotal role in re-pollinating swaths of scorched land. Pollen sticks to their fur, and they also ingest fruits, which makes them excellent seed-spreaders. A single flying fox can spread as many as 60,000 seeds per night.

“Everybody realized, ‘Hey, we’re going to need as much help as we can get to regenerate all of this,’” says John Grant, a spokesman for the Australian wildlife rescue organization WIRES (Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service). “And the flying foxes are the best animals to do that.” In 2020, the New South Wales government posted a video praising the bats for their super-pollinating powers.

So when some 85,000 flying foxes descended upon the city of Tamworth last year, news coverage wasn’t all bad. In one account, a local resident called the bats “flying vermin” and complained about their smell, but others focused on how such vast bat congregations are an amazing sight. One resident compared the gathering to a local music festival and proclaimed, “We’ve got to live with them, they are great for our ecology.” The fire “changed the mind-sets of a lot of people,” Grant says. “Most of New South Wales was in flames. And I think that people began to realize just how precious our wildlife is.”

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This article is a selection from the November 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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