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Heatwave Kills Hundreds of Flying Fox Pups in Australia

With temperatures hot enough to melt asphalt, the searing heat “boiled” the tiny creatures

(Help Save the Wildlife and Bushlands in Campbelltown)
smithsonian.com

It’s been so cold in the United States it’s hard to imagine it could be warm anywhere right now. But down in southern Australia, a heatwave has swept through the region, with the area around Sydney reaching 117 degrees over the weekend. It’s so hot that hundreds of flying foxes in Campbelltown are dying of heat stress, reports Martin Belam at The Guardian.

The Campbelltown conservation group Help Save the Wildlife and Bushlands reports that at least 400 of the animals have died from the heat, posting images of the carnage on their Facebook page. As people began to realize that the animals were succumbing to the heat, volunteers from Save the Wildlife and animal rehabilitation group WIRES attempted to save some of the hundreds of juvenile flying foxes in the colony, according to News.com.au. Adult foxes were able to fly away and find shadier spots to ride out the heat wave, leaving the fox pups behind, stuck in the trees.

“In extremely trying conditions they [the volunteers] worked tirelessly to provide subcutaneous fluids to the pups that could be reached and many lives were saved. But sadly many lives were lost too,” a spokesperson for the group says. “Hundreds of mainly young flying-foxes were lost to the heat. The final count could run to thousands.”

Kate Ryan, who manages the bat colony, tells Ben Chenoweth at the Camden-Narellan Advertiser that the scene was heartbreaking. “I don’t know how many times I bent down and got on my knees to pick up a dead baby,” she says. “There were dead bodies everywhere.”

Volunteers nursed about 100 young foxes back to health, but around 20 had to be taken for more extensive care. As Chenoweth reports, volunteers monitoring another flying fox colony in nearby Picton did not report any deaths.

While the Picton colony is located in a shadier and more protected spot, but those in Campbelltown don't have quite as much cover. Their habitat is also not in great shape, says Ryan, which leaves the colony vulnerable.

“The creek which runs through the colony is putrid so the bats don’t have anywhere to cool down and there is no ground cover," she says. "It [the site] needs a total regeneration.” If temperatures spike again, she says it’s likely the bats will suffer another die-off. 

The bats, like all animals, can suffer dehydration during such extreme heat events. “Just like human babies, they're really vulnerable when they're young,” WIRES office manager Kristie Harris tells the BBC.

Ryan is a little more straightforward. “They basically boil. It affects their brain – their brain just fries and they become incoherent,” she tells Chenoweth. “It would be like standing in the middle of a sandpit with no shade.”

This is not the first time that flying foxes have suffered from the heat in Australia. A 2014 heatwave is estimated to have killed as many as 100,000 flying foxes in the northern state of Queensland and local governments had to hire special contractors to clean up the carcasses found along city streets.

Australia is home to several species of flying foxes. The species affected in Campbelltown is the grey-headed flying fox, a species listed as vulnerable and the largest bat in Australia. The species is also known as a fruit-bat and helps disperse seeds and pollinate flowers throughout the forest.

Habitat loss has sent the species in decline—a problem further exacerbated by their slow reproduction rates. And they are increasingly coming into conflict with people. Residents in suburban areas complain about the bats nesting in trees in and defecating on their property and many residents object when the bats take up residence in city parks. Even more, the discovery of several zoonotic diseases carried by the bats has made some people increasingly bat-phobic. Conservationists, however, argue the bats are a keystone species in many of Australia's forest ecosystems.

As Maggie Astor at The New York Times reports, the heat wave, which was hot enough to melt the asphalt on the highway between Sydney and Melbourne, broke on Monday afternoon. But residents—and bats—should brace for more. Research predicts that in 20 years, heat waves in Australia's southern cities will regularly reach a searing 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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