The world’s biggest bats (Pteropus sp.), also known as flying foxes — or Old World fruit bats — are many times the size of their smaller cousins. Found in Asia, Africa, and Australia, flying foxes belong to a family of megabats called Pteropodidae, which includes 65 species, the largest of which have wing spans approaching five feet.
These bats have a face and body color similar to that of a fox, but instead of scampering through the night to raid the hen house, they fly through orchards to find their food.
The Indian flying fox
The Indian flying fox (Pteropus giganteus) is one of the world’s biggest bats, weighing up to 3.5 pounds, with males being somewhat larger than females. They can fly at a speed of 13.4 mph (21.6 kph) for three hours or longer, with top speeds of 19.3 mph (31 kph).
During the day, flying foxes hang upside down from their home trees, together in colonies populated with thousands of their kin. Their trees are selected based on proximity to food, water, and forest, which often overlaps with human habitat.
True to their name, flying foxes look very similar to foxes in face and coloring, with great wings that fold up when they rest. Flying foxes are clean animals; they carefully maintain their featherless wings with frequent grooming.
They are easier to look at than their small bat relatives, with fuzzy, canine faces. In fact, their intelligence has also been compared with that of dogs, although flying foxes have never been domesticated.
The flying fox feeds mainly on fruit and nectar. The Indian flying fox will fly from tree to tree, consuming a variety of fruits (mango, guava, fig) and sipping nectar during its night-time feeding. They also suck fluids from fruit by pressing the flesh against the top of their mouth, rejecting the dry pulp.
Consumed fruit seeds are scarified in the digestive tract and excreted, aiding in the natural germination and growth of new fruit trees. Some flying foxes also consume insects to supplement their protein intake, but they are mainly vegetarian; with flowers, cones, bark, seed pods, and twigs being the main supplements to their diet.
Although they are mostly nocturnal like microbats, megabats do not use echolocation to find their food. They have the ability to see more color than most animals — although less than humans — and have exceptional night vision. This enables them to navigate by landmarks.
Flying foxes chatter and call with small screechy noises. Each individual possesses a different odor, another likely component of their communication. Their mates, fellow colony members, and even their home trees are all identified by their scents.
As they hang in their trees the flying foxes will wrap themselves in their wings when they are cold; and when they are hot, they use the same appendages as fans.
Flying foxes live in forests and wetlands. Pteropus Giganteus roosts during the day in large, well-established colonies on exposed tree branches such as fig, banyan, and tamarind, especially those near temples and metropolitan areas. Roosting sites are commonly found near water, human populations, and agriculture, ensuring that all the essentials are nearby.
These clever creatures dwell in vast colonies — with up to 20,000 individuals. They set up permanent and semi-permanent camps in places near food supplies.
Males may develop a hierarchical power structure of tree resting locations in order to guard the roost and associated females from intruders. They depart the camp trees one by one shortly after dusk.
Female flying foxes reach reproductive maturity at around 18-24 months. They breed between July and October, are polygynandrous, and the parents-to-be roost separately throughout gestation, which lasts about seven months.
They normally only have one pup per season, which is looked after by its mother. After about three weeks, the babies are able to hang on the tree themselves. Weaning begins at around five months.
A normal lifespan for a flying fox in the wild is about 15 years, but in captivity, they can live much longer, with the record being 31 years for a captive Indian flying fox.
Although they are important pollinators and seed dispersers for fruit and other native trees, these bats are underappreciated, to say the least. Nearly half of the species are endangered or threatened with extinction because they are widely considered an agricultural pest, and are thus hunted for sport or for organized culling.
Due to extensive loss of habitat, flying foxes’ make homes that are increasingly overlapping with human activities, and many people view them as a threat. While flying foxes can carry and transmit viruses like other bats, the possibility of humans contracting disease from them is extremely unlikely.
Ila Bonczek contributed to this report.