9 Fantastic Facts About Flying Foxes

istock / istock

The largest bats on earth are gentle giants with a misleading name. So grab your binoculars, and let’s take a look at these strange and wonderful mammals.

1. There Are Several Dozen Species of Flying Foxes.

More than 60 species currently take wing above Asia, Australia, Africa, and assorted Pacific islands. The fossil record shows theirs is a pretty old group that first evolved at least 35 million years ago.

2. The Biggest Have 5.25-Foot Wingspans.

A native of the Philippines, Acerodon jubatus, the giant golden-crowned flying fox, weighs in at just under 2.5 pounds—about as much as a small pineapple. Another biggie is Pteropus vampyrus, whose wings can stretch 4.92 feet from end to end. Its common name is "large flying fox," which may not be creative, but it is accurate.

3. They're Mostly Vegetarian.

Fruits, leaves, flowers, nectars, and pollen make up the bulk of flying fox diets. As you might expect, some get into trouble with farmers by raiding their fruit trees, though floodlights can be used as a fairly reliable deterrent. Unfortunately, shooting them down is another popular technique in certain areas.

4. They Can’t Echolocate.

Many bats are famous for their ability to emit high-frequency sounds that act as a natural sonar, helping them stalk tasty insects in midair. Flying foxes, on the other hand, lack this talent. Since fruits are stationary, they don’t need it. Instead, the critters use a combination of keen eyesight and a sharp olfactory sense to find breakfast.

5. Colonies Can Be 200,000 Bats Strong.

Come naptime, flying foxes roost in trees, where they form noisy clusters known as camps. When one bat grows restless, he or she will often abandon the clique and fly several miles away in search of new friends to (literally) hang with. But depleted flying fox populations all over the world have made these camps way less impressive than they used to be. As recently as 1930, naturalists happened upon bunches that were 4 miles long and .5 mile wide, and boasted a whopping 30 million bats!

6. Flying Foxes Mate Upside Down.

If you’re going to copulate while dangling from a branch, make sure to mind your footing. Before the deed begins, a female will steady herself by grasping her partner’s ankles with her feet. Meanwhile, the male’s penis might be one-fourth of his total body length. This helps keep it from slipping out mid-coitus, given the delicate logistics involved.

7. On Hot Days, Those Wings Come in Handy.

The bats try to beat the heat by fanning themselves while at rest. When that doesn’t work, flying foxes will seek shade and then lick themselves all over to cool their bodies. Still, above a certain point, extreme temperatures will kill them en masse. Last year, Australia suffered through a blistering summer which claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 flying foxes in Queensland alone.

8. Mothers Carry Their Babies While Airborne.

A newborn won’t be able to fly on its own for several months. And because these mammals travel from camp to camp in pursuit of food, its mother won't build any permanent nests. Instead, she’ll spend several weeks with her baby bat clinging to her belly; as it grows more independent, mom-bat leaves it behind at night while feeding. Babies are usually born in October and are ready to take off for good by March or April.

9. Flying Foxes are Important Pollinators.

Without their pollinator services, economies around the world would take a serious hit. Consider the durian, a South Asian fruit which generated $440 million in export earnings in Thailand alone last year. Flying foxes enjoy their flowers and play a huge role in the plant’s pollination. Australia’s valuable eucalyptus trees also heavily rely on the bats to reproduce.