As we had trouble sleeping late these past few days, we went for a swim at Cairns Lagoon around 8 am. We have to admit that the water was a little cold (around 24°C) but what a pleasure to do lengths before starting a new day.
While we were walking to go to the Lagoon, what did we see? Not one, not two, but hundreds of giant bats! Intrigued by these creatures that we usually never see in broad daylight, we stopped to take some pictures while trying to avoid the poop which was falling from the trees every 30 seconds.
Except the smell, it was a pleasant surprise to discover from closer the only flying mammal (active flyer, contrary to some squirrels who let themselves soar and are called passive flyer).
Here is what the explanatory board indicated:
One of the Wet’s tropic most breathtaking wildlife events takes place every night here at the Cairns library. For years spectacled Flying Foxes or Fruit Bats have roosted in these large trees and at dusk hundreds, sometimes thousands, of these bats depart from their camp, swirling up into the sky. For one magical moment these large bats line the horizon for as far as you can see before silently disappearing into the night.
Do you know what we are?
We are megabats and, unlike smaller insectivorous microbats, we are vegetarians feeding on nectar and fruit. We do not use sonar or echolocation, but rely on our excellent vision – essential for navigation and foraging – and our keen sense of smell.
Megabats like us are found in tropical areas around the world except Europe, North and South America. Australia has a good diversity including five flying fox species and three smaller tube-nosed fruit bats and blossom bats.
At night they disperse from the camp and forage for food. Their favoured food is nectar which they lick from easy-to-see white or pale flowers with their long tongues and carry pollen on the fur of their pointed noses to other flowers. Not only do they cross-pollinate flowers over long distances, they also distribute seeds by eating fruit and dispersing seeds through their droppings. As they can fly long distances each night (up to 70 kilometres), pollen and seeds can be carried and distributed throughout the forests of the Wet Tropics. This makes flying foxes vital in maintaining ecosystem diversity and health.
Spectacled Flying Foxes (pteropus conspicillatus), named because of the distinctive pale fur on their back and around their eyes, roost together in daylight in tree-top communal camps with the older males guarding the camp perimeters on the lookout for potential predators.
In camp they spend much of their day grooming, sunbathing and chattering to their neighbours and have a complex social system that includes over 20 different sounds for communication. They are very clean animals and even turn head-up, hanging by their thumbs, to defecate. They also have short sleeps usually wrapping their large wings (around 1 ½ metre wingspan) around themselves. During the hottest part of the day, they gently flap their wings to keep cool.
The majority of the bats in this daytime camp are Spectacled Flying Foxes and their numbers stay relatively constant throughout the year. However, a few Little Red Flying Foxes (Pteropus Scapulatus) also roost here and sometimes congregate in large numbers.
All Australian native wildlife species, including flying foxes, are fully protected. The Spectacled Flying Fox is listed as a ‘Vulnerable’ species because a rapid decline in their numbers has recently been observed as a result of forest clearing and a reduction in food sources. As a result these large bats face increasing dangers of being forced to live in clother contact with humans.
Born to be wild
They mate around March/April and have a six month gestation. Between October and December each female gives birth while upside down to a single young. The well developed, fully furred baby is caught in mum’s wings and then tucked under her arm where the baby holds onto one of her two mammary glands. The mother will carry the baby wherever she flies until it gets too heavy, then the youngsters are left together at night in a crèche.