Batty About Flying Foxes

Long considered black devils with wings, these bats today are stealing hearts – and mangoes – across Australia

Mariana fruit bat Pteropus mariannus
Mariana fruit bat Pteropus mariannus Wikimedia Commons

They are not related to foxes, except perhaps for their cunning nature. It could be the bat's size, odd looks, nocturnal behavior or sheer numbers that has made generations of Australians uneasy. Recently, however, Australia's flying foxes have more going against them than just their bad reputations.

New Zealand writer Derek Grzelewski tells the saga of these strange Australian creatures that have been accused of everything from mad attacks to spreading deadly diseases. They hang in the trees like bunches of fruit and, since the early part of the century, have been invading the nation's fruit crops, swooping in on wings up to four feet long.

Trouble is: things aren't what they seem. The growers have long argued that the bats eat all the fruit. But the birds do, too, yet few would think of using flamethrowers or strychnine to kill the birds, as the growers used against the bats. Are the bats so ugly and frightening that growers might be overreacting?

The answer is yes; a whole cadre of supporters are now speaking out for the bats. Caregivers routinely adopt flying fox orphans and find them delightfully smart. The attentive bats attach themselves playfully to their caregivers' clothing, hanging upside down as their keepers go about their housework.

Even with this newfound popularity, bat populations are declining rapidly due to the conversion of their eucalyptus-forest habitat into pasture. When droughts strike, hungry bats have no where else to go but to urban gardens, city parks and orchards, where they are then considered pests and killed.

Perhaps, suggests Grzelewski, these forest creatures are telling us something.

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