Contributed by Joy Window, Member – Big Scrub Landcare
Grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) are familiar to many of us who have gardens – they eat pollen, nectar and fruit there when their wild sources of food are scarce. Because most of their wild habitat (including the Big Scrub) has been destroyed by humans, they find food where they can, often incurring people’s fear and wrath. They are protected under the law as they listed as a vulnerable species. The Latin name polio has nothing to do with the disease – it is Greek for ‘grey’; cephalus is ‘head’.
The flying fox is the largest bat in Australia – the wingspan can be a metre, and it can weigh 1 kilogram.
Flying foxes, unlike insect-eating bats, do not echolocate, but instead use their large eyes to find food. They leave their roots or ‘camps’ at night and can travel up to 50 kilometres in search of it. In captivity they have lived up to 23 years, but in the wild where disease, predation by eagles, goannas and snakes, and heat waves take a toll, they might live to 15 years.
Adults mate between March and May, and a single young is born six months later, between September and November. Babies are carried by their mothers for the first three weeks or so until they get too heavy, then parked in maternity camps in ‘creches’. They can fly and follow their mothers after three months, but are not weaned until five or six months old.
These megabats are keystone pollinators and known seed dispersers for nearly 190 species of native trees and plants, including rainforest figs and vines. Their fur goes all the way down their legs to the ankles, rather than stopping at the knees as in the other flying fox species – the little red, black and spectacled flying foxes.
At one stage it was thought that they were primates, but DNA analysis has shown that this is not so.
I once spent an afternoon with a group of them in a bat hospital. I was warned that they were very curious and had individual personalities so I should be prepared for anything. While I stood very still, several swung over upside down (from my point of view) on the aviary’s wires to give me a good sniffing. What beautiful faces – I immediately fell in love with these cute and furry charmers! Because they unfortunately can carry viruses that (extremely rarely) cross over to humans, I was not allowed to touch them. Bat carers are vaccinated against those viruses. If you see one, say, on an electric wire or barbed wire, or tangled in bird-netting in the backyard, it is important not to touch it but to call a wildlife carer so that it (or the young if an adult female has died) can be taken into care.