Flying Foxes Facts: What you need to know

NEW HEIGHTS: Latest estimates have the local flying fox population at 140,000. Photo: Peter Hardin

NEW HEIGHTS: Latest estimates have the local flying fox population at 140,000. Photo: Peter Hardin

The grey-headed flying fox is the largest bat found in Australia, with a wingspan up to one metre. It is one of three kinds of flying fox found around mainland Australia.

They have been targeted as a nuisance in the local area and can spread diseases, most notably Hendra Virus, but the species plays an important environmental role.

Australian flying foxes

Flying foxes are native to Australia and, aside from suffering a few regrettably unimaginative names, they are one of several threatened Aussie animals.

The Grey-headed Flying Fox

Grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Is easily recognisable by its rusty reddish-coloured collar, grey head and hairy legs. It is also the most vulnerable species because it competes with humans for prime coastal habitat along the south-east Queensland, NSW and Victorian coasts.

Black Flying Fox

You guessed it – they are almost completely black in colour with only a slight rusty red-coloured collar and a light frosting of silvery grey on its belly. 

Black flying-fox (Pteropus alecto) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Black flying-fox (Pteropus alecto) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Black Flying Foxes are more common across the northern and north-eastern coast of Australia.

Little Red Flying Fox

Little red flying-fox (Pteropus scapulatus) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Little red flying-fox (Pteropus scapulatus) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Yep. It’s little and red – the smallest Australian Flying-fox is often found further inland than it’s batty cousins.

Where do they live?

Mostly on the coast, but they have been spotted further inland.

What do Flying Foxes eat?

The batty critters feed on pollen and nectar and play an important ecological role as pollinators.

According to an Environment NSW report, Flying foxes act as seed dispersers for Eucalyptus, Syncarpia, Angophora, Melaleuca and Banksia trees, but in some areas they also eat a range of rainforest fruit and consequently influence the reproductive and evolutionary processes of many forest types, including hardwoods (DECC, in preparation). 

Are they under threat?

Short answer: yes. 

The Grey-headed flying fox is one of many threatened Australian species.

There is a considerable list of threats, some humans are responsible for and others relating to other wildlife.

TAKING FLIGHT: Tamworth MP Kevin Anderson has called for some huge changes around flying fox management in Tamworth. Photo Peter Hardin: 300517PHD028

TAKING FLIGHT: Tamworth MP Kevin Anderson has called for some huge changes around flying fox management in Tamworth. Photo Peter Hardin: 300517PHD028

Unregulated shooting, roosting site disturbance, clearing of native vegetation and power lines have all contributed to the flying foxes threatened state. 

Extended drought conditions forcing the Australian white Ibis to migrate closer ot the east cost has caused problems for Flying Foxes as well.

Due to a dramatic increase of Australian white ibis using the roost trees as nesting sites, and the continuous use of the site by grey-headed flying foxes, the vegetation was in steady decline which, if it had continued, would cause grey-headed flying foxes to seek a new camp in the region. 

What can we do about it?

The national monitoring program for the grey-headed flying-fox commenced in February, 2013, and is conducted every three months. This is the biggest census of grey-headed flying-foxes ever undertaken across the species' entire national range. The aim of the census is to deliver a reliable benchmark on the current size of the grey-headed flying-fox population in 2013, and to monitor population trends in the future.

Disease and risk

  • Flying-fox camps in public places, such as parks, school grounds and residential areas, can sometimes raise concerns about possible health risks for community members. Concerns include flying-fox infections, noise, odour and the impact of flying-fox droppings on houses, cars, and washing.
  • Human infections with viruses borne by flying-foxes are very rare. In Australia at December 2016, there have been three confirmed cases of Australian Bat Lyssavirus in humans. All were in Queensland

Australian Bat Lyssavirus

  • Australian Bat Lyssavirus is found in the saliva of infected animals. The virus can only be spread to other animals and people through the bite or scratch of a flying-fox. 
  • Australian Bat Lyssavirus is not spread through flying fox urine or droppings.

Hendra Virus

  • There is no evidence that people can catch Hendra directly from flying-foxes. It is believed that horses catch the Hendra virus when they eat food which has recently been contaminated with an infected flying-fox's urine, saliva or birth products.
  • Hendra can be transmitted from infected horses to humans following close contact with body fluids, like blood and saliva from infected horses.
  • There has been a small number of confirmed cases of Hendra virus in humans, also all in Queensland.

Living near flying-fox colonies

  • Environment NSW reports: there are no reports of these infections acquired from living in close proximity to flying-fox camps. This indicates that living near a flying-fox camp does not pose a significant risk for infection with these viruses.

Droppings

  • Always best to avoid.

What to do if you are scratched or bitten by a flying-fox:

  • Wash the wound immediately with soap and water for at least five minutes.
  • Apply an antiseptic like povidone-iodine.
  • Consult a doctor.

If you find a injured flying fox:

  • Do not try to handle the animal.
  • Contact a wildlife rescue, like WIRES on 1300 094 737.