With their huge round eyes—framed by a pattern of straw-hued fur suggestive of eyeglasses—and their tiny bodies swaddled in colorful blankets like newborn human babes, these spectacled flying fox pups (Pteropus conspicillatus) could win over even the most bat-averse onlooker. And these four and their fellow orphans, photographed by Australia-based photographer Jürgen Freund at a bat hospital in northern Queensland, will only inspire greater awe as they grow into their species’ unique superpowers.
When they reach adulthood, these swift acrobats of the forest will be capable of keeping pace with a car traveling 30 miles per hour. And it’s a good thing—they have an important job to do. A keystone species that dwells in the eucalyptus forests and mangrove thickets of eastern Australia and Papua New Guinea, spectacled flying foxes spend their days consuming the nectar, pollen, blossoms, and fruits of both native and non-native trees. They then spread the pollen that clings to their fur and the seeds they consume as they travel between patches of habitat, ensuring the trees’ survival and longevity—as well as their own.
The four young spectacled flying foxes pictured here are among the luckier members of their species. When in their colony, the tawny-tinged bats roost together by the thousands in treetop “camps,” hanging from the highest branches like origami Christmas tree ornaments. This sociability provides many benefits, but it makes the species vulnerable to heat stress. While these tropic-dwellers are adapted to high temperatures, their cooling strategies, which include fanning their wings and coating their bodies with saliva, have their limits, and Australia’s recent record-breaking heat waves have tested those. In the austral summer of 2018 alone, at least 23,000 flying foxes perished. Fruit bats as a group are now some of Australia’s most imperiled animals, and in 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature formally listed them as Endangered. Climate change is just one of a long list of threats to the species. Others include tick paralysis, cleft palate syndrome, land-clearing for lumber, agriculture, and development, and entanglement in powerlines and fruit tree netting designed to protect crops.
The orphans Freund photographed were fortunate enough to be rescued and cared for at the Tolga Bat Hospital in Queensland after their mothers perished. The hospital and conservation center, which has rehabilitated bats since 1990, is a vital part of the effort to save Australia’s flying foxes. In 2020, conservationists, including caregivers from the hospital, formed a flying fox recovery team and are pressing government officials to overhaul a recovery plan for the bats that hasn’t been updated since 2010.
With birthing season just beginning—most pups are born between October and December—flying fox caregivers are preparing the nursery for this year’s orphans. Baby blankets: check. Heat lamps: check. Banana smoothies: check. While the caregivers hope for a cooler summer than in past years, they anticipate hundreds of orphaned pups to arrive soon, the healthy and the sick, bittersweet symbols of hope.
Northern Queensland, Australia
German-Australian marine and nature photographer Jürgen Freund uses his skills from his training as an engineer to create special lenses and underwater gadgets making his photography innovative and unique. His photographs are used extensively by conservation agencies like WWF and Conservation International, and he has authored several WWF coffee table books namely The Coral Triangle and the Sulu Sulawesi Seas. He currently lives in Far North Queensland, Australia, and considers the entire Australian continent as his photographic studio.
April Reese is a freelance science writer and editor based in Portugal. Her reporting has appeared in Scientific American, Discover, bioGraphic, Science magazine, Aeon, and many other outlets. She holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the Yale School of the Environment.