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There’s a fox in my fig tree

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Meet some of our newest frugivores!

Our colony of Indian flying foxes perches under the roof of their house. They have long-toed feet with sharp claws enabling them to roost hanging upside down. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Six Indian flying foxes have settled in (under, actually) nicely at the Adaptations Building.

While it may be hard to tell which creature the Indian flying fox resembles most, its large eyeballs, pointy ears, reddish brown fur, long snout, and wingspan of up to six feet, all belong to the megabat Pteropus giganteus. Not quite a fox, although certainly similar in the looks department, the Indian flying fox is one of the larger fruit bats in the world, weighing as much as 3.5 pounds.

In the wild, the Indian flying fox is found on the Indian sub-continent that extends from Pakistan to Southeast Asia and China, and south to the Maldive Islands. Flying fox inhabit enormous trees such as banyan, tamarind and fig. These trees are capable of holding huge bat colonies, sometimes housing thousands of bats!

Here you can really see the flying fox’s giant eyeballs. They depend on their large eyes which possess excellent night vision and perhaps some color perception to distinguish fruit from foliage. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.
For the most part, these bats are nocturnal, leaving their roost just after sunset for long distance flights in search of a variety of fruit including mango, guava, banana, durian, neem and papaya, as well as blossoms and nectar. The ideal treat for these giant frugivores (fruit eaters) and the majority of their diet in the wild is figs. Imagine waking up to a tree-full of flying fox furiously feasting on figs!

These bats have many adaptations designed to help find and consume their fruit-oriented diets. A claw on their second finger enhances grasping ability. They have a long snout with an excellent sense of smell, a long tongue to reach into plants, and sharp teeth for piercing tough rinds and mashing pulp. They chew the fruit and crush it against their hard, ridged palates. Then they swallow the juice and spit out small pellets of pulp and seeds. Large flying foxes consume up to half their body weight daily. Here at the zoo, our Indian flying foxes dine on apples, bananas, cooked sweet potato and carrots, mixed greens, and vitamin and mineral supplements.

Our Indian flying foxes are a little bashful, so be sure to be extra polite when you approach their exhibit. If you are lucky they will stare right back at you. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.
Flying foxes are very social, literally hanging out together all the time. A colony contains several hundred, even thousands, of bats living in nearby trees. Most of their daytime is spent sleeping, resting, licking and grooming themselves and each other. They can be very vocal and erupt into a loud chatter if an outsider approaches.

This video shows a few Indian flying fox roosting atop a tree in India. You can see how they stretch and hang in different positions. (Video via adbio 12).

With wing spans of up to 6 feet and weights more than 3 pounds, a flying fox soaring through the sky is an impressive sight. Their strong wings can carry them up to 40 miles. To land, they simply slow to a stall or crash onto foliage while grasping branches.

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Bats have very light bones compared to other mammals. In contrast to their powerful upper body, most fruit bats lack weight bearing hind limbs for locomotion or even standing. At best, flying foxes crawl on the ground. With lighter and weaker rear quarters, bats hang upside down. Tendons in their hind legs lock claws onto surfaces without any effort. To launch into flight, they merely release their grip!

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) proclaimed 2011-2012 as Year of the Bat to coincide with the United Nations Year of Forests. Year of the Bat promotes conservation, research and education. Flying foxes are a keystone species in the world’s tropical rain forests as many ecological benefits come from bats. They pollinate and disperse the seeds of many tropical plants and their bat guano is an excellent fertilizer.

These flying foxes are awaiting your visit. In parts of India these creatures are seen as good luck; stop by Adaptations and see for yourself. Stay batty!


Steve Hofhine said…
Very nice. Will these be part of the upcoming Asian Tropical Forest exhibit alongside the tigers and sloth bears?
Great question! It technically won't be part of the new exhibit complex that will include tigers and sloth bears. The Adaptations Building that houses meerkats, the flying foxes and a few other creatures is *just* outside of the scope of the tropical Asian exhibits we'll be working on over the next few years. But they'll be next door neighbors! ;-)
Anonymous said…
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