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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Celebrate Bat Appreciation Month: Go Batty for Bats!

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

Indian Flying Foxes. How can you not love those foxy faces? Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
Every living creature has an important role to play in the ecosystem—a special niche that they evolved to fill. Some are very misunderstood despite the good they do, and this can lead to misconceptions that make some people fearful of nature’s most valuable players. Examples include spiders that help control insect populations and snakes that do the same for rodents. We’d like to introduce you to another often misunderstood creature—one that calls Woodland Park Zoo, home. Meet the Indian flying fox (Pteropus giganteus)—also called the giant fruit bat.

Hangin' around. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
There are more than 1,000 different species of bats found throughout the world and the Indian flying fox—which is so named for its fox-like appearance—is one of the largest. There can be some color variation, but most of these bats are dark-brown, with tinges of black and grey about their bodies. They have long furry pointed snouts—very foxy—and a gigantic wingspan, the biggest of which can measure nearly 5 feet! Their wings, which are actually their hands, with stretched leathery skin over the bones of the 5 digits, have claws on a few of the tips. The thumbs have the biggest claws and are used to hold onto trees and for protection from other bats. This, in addition to the claws on their feet, is what enables them to safely hang and move around upside down (which is right-side up to them) from limbs and branches.

This Indian flying fox does NOT want to suck your blood. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
The Indian flying fox is found across South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, China (Tibet), Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They roost in large groups or colonies on the open branches of tall trees—usually in close proximity to a body of water and food sources. So what do they eat? Of the more than 1,000 different species of bats, only three of them feed on blood, but these bats are not big on biting other animals for their dinner. Rather, Indian flying foxes are fanatical about fruit … and flowers too! That’s right, they feed almost exclusively on fruits and some nectar. Their favorites include fruits that grow in the trees native to their habitats, such as guava, mango and figs.

Some bats find their way around by echolocation—emitting sounds that bounce off of objects to find their way in the dark. This is how insect-eating bats hunt too—by using echolocation to catch their prey on the wing. Indian flying foxes don’t use sounds to get around. Like most other fruit bats, they use sight and smell. They have large specialized eyes on their furry foxy faces, that enable them to see in the dark, and have super sensitive sniffers to help them find ripe and fragrant fruits.

Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
So back to that part about playing an important role in the ecosystem. The Indian flying fox’s contribution to the environment is, in part, related to its diet. There are hundreds of plants, trees and food crops around the world that depend on fruit and nectar-feeding bats for pollination and seed dispersal. That means you can thank bats for helping to maintain a sustainable supply of foods like bananas, papayas, dates and many others.

The group of Indian flying foxes that live at Woodland Park Zoo have a nutritious diet that mimics that of their wild cousins. Every day, our animal keepers prepare a special fruit salad for them that might make your mouth water. It’s made up of bananas, melon, apples, pears, grapes, blueberries and other seasonal fruits. They also add in a bit of vegetables too, like kale, yams, carrots and romaine, plus a few additional supplements.

Wanna see these cuties right-side up? Turn the camera upside down! Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
You can visit our Indian flying foxes in the Adaptations building on the East side of the zoo. There are six of them—all males. No foxy ladies in this group. Like most bats, they are primarily nocturnal, meaning they’re most active at night, so during the day you may often find them hanging from the top of the exhibit, roosting with their wings wrapped around their bodies like blankets. Just remember to look up and say hi!


FUN FLYING FOX FACTS
  • The upside down position that bats take when roosting has its advantages. To take flight, they just have to loosen their feet, spread their wings and go. 
  • No, bats don’t poop on themselves. They turn upright when they have to go. And by the way, bat poop is pretty valuable since it’s known to be a really good fertilizer. 
  • Fruit bats have really fast metabolisms—they can digest bananas, mangos, and berries in about 20 minutes! 
  • When a female gives birth, the baby usually comes feet first and then grabs onto its mother as soon as being born.

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