12 Jun 2011

Flying foxes versus European bats

It was a beautiful evening to go for a walk and the Sydney Botanic Gardens provided a good shortcut to get to the Opera House and see some of the lights of the Vivid Festival.  It was dusk and the silhouettes of trees were becoming darker when someone said: “do you hear that? It’s the flying foxes .”  I can only describe the noise as a shriek.   I looked up and saw dozens of them. Some hanging upside down, from the top branches of trees, wiggling in a motion that resembled an escapist trying to free himself from a voluntary straitjacket. Others already free and flying above our heads.  Easy to spot, as their wing span may exceed 1 meter. 

I had seen them for the first time in Brisbane. Far above my head, they had looked way more majestic then. No offence to the creatures, but the scene in the Botanic Gardens was a little bit off-putting. There is a sure opportunity for someone to make a horror movie about a group of friends getting locked inside at night and attacked by flying foxes.

Luckily, nature has compensated the size of these bats with the fact that they only eat nectar, pollen and fruit, so they are no risk to humans at all.  Also, at a close distance they look very cute: 
Photo courtesy of Mr Ducke

Spanish bats are much smaller and look quite different. Their face look a bit squashed and, unlike flying foxes, their eyes are pretty useless, forcing them to navigate by radar. I’ve read they produce a sound, with their mouth or their nose, which bounces against the objects around them and helps them get a “picture” of where they and their prey (generally insects and small mice) are.  This is referred to as echolocation. 

Photo courtesy of Emanuel Yellin

Maybe the flying fox is to the world of bats what the Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus was to the world of dinosaurs: bigger than the rest but herbivorous and therefore harmless for other animals.  Thank nature for that. A study published a few years ago showed that Mediterranean bats may be attacking migratory birds and eating them.   I’m sure if Aussie bats went for that approach the evening walks across the Botanic Gardens would become a little bit spookier.

Still, for the moment my favourite bat will continue to be this one: