Why our city’s bats are most misunderstood

The Indian Flying Fox has little interaction with us, but is important for seed dispersion especially in our cities

July 04, 2019 12:04 pm | Updated 12:12 pm IST

Indian Flying Fox

Indian Flying Fox

For most people, bats are synonymous with darkness and disease, whether it’s the Twilight series, the legend of Dracula , who, according to the book, would turn into a bat and suck blood, or the Nipah virus. But these creatures need a little more understanding.

Bats are the only flying mammals in the world, and the Indian Flying Fox is one of the largest. The name of the species, Pteropus giganteus , explains the size. Also called the Great Indian Fruit Bat, it eats fruits, feeding on the juice, and helps in seed dispersion and pollination, making them an integral part of the ecosystem.

It’s really a gentle giant that lurks around our neighbourhood without being noticed, living lives parallel to ours, but at night. They are nocturnal animals with weak eyesight, and hang upside down in tall dense trees (palm, banyan), staying in their places for long hours, easily overlooked.

Bats are one of the few mammals that can use sound (bio-sonar technology) to navigate, called echolocation. They rely on echolocation to detect obstacles in flight, find their way into roosts, and forage for food. But the Indian Flying Fox does not echolocate and relies on its sense of vision and smell.

To feed, they’ll squeeze pieces of the fruit into their mouths, so pulp-rich fruits are their choice: mangoes, for instance (bananas, in other regions), and often even nectar from tree flowers. They swallow the juice and spit out the pulp and seeds. If the pulp is really soft, like that of a banana, they may swallow some of it. They are often observed chewing on eucalyptus and probably other flowers to obtain the juices and pollen. They drink water from water bodies while flying to and from their feeding and sleeping locations. They can actually travel more than 50 km in a night in search of food and water.

These bats, like all mammals, are warm-blooded and maintain a body temperature of about 33-37°C. The males are often territorial with their particular roosting place in the tree. At times they’ll guard the entire tree as part of their food territory. However, they roost communally on treetops in large colonies and make a lot of screeching noises at dusk and at night.

Breeding usually takes place between July and October and the young ones are carried by the females for several weeks. Females are often seen flying from one location to another with their young ones clinging to the underside of their mothers. Later, the young are subsequently left in a tree once they feel they are ready to be on their own.

The bat population is declining almost everywhere due to rampant tree felling in cities, leading to a loss of habitat. Preserving the natural heritage around urban settlements is the only way to protect these flying mammals. Catch them in sky at dusk or in the dense foliage around Race Course Road.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl about Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He formerly led a programme at WWF India as a naturalist, and is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds in the region

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