Wings outstretched from finger to foot, a female grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) shuttles her nursing pup back to their roost in Yarra Bend Park outside the city of Melbourne. It’s summertime in Australia, which means a new generation of the island nation’s largest bat species has just been born. This youngster will spend its first month clinging to its mother as she goes about her day (and night), traveling back and forth between the flowering and fruiting trees where her colony mates forage and the roosts where they rest.
By the age of six months, the pup will have nearly achieved its full-grown wingspan of 1 meter (more than 3 feet) and will be on its way to becoming a self-sufficient member of its nomadic group, spending the vast majority of its waking hours in search of the forest’s seasonal offerings. That can mean a tremendous amount of time on the wing. It’s not unusual for flying foxes to travel 40 kilometers (25 miles) in a single night as they seek out nectar, pollen, and fruit—and researchers have recorded significantly longer nightly journeys. A study published earlier this year found that one individual tagged with a satellite transmitter traveled more than 12,000 kilometers (nearly 7,500 miles) between 123 roosts over the course of four-and-a-half years. These findings illustrate the critical role that bats play as pollinators and seed dispersers, helping to maintain connections and viability among the increasingly fragmented remnants of Australia’s native forests, which have been reduced by 40 percent since European colonization began.
Despite their essential role in maintaining and regenerating forest ecosystems, bats are still maligned by many Australians, particularly when their habitats overlap with those of humans. And that’s happening more often today than ever. Destruction and degradation of natural forests has forced flying foxes to turn more frequently to cultivated fruit trees, agricultural crops, and city gardens for food, prompting some farmers and residents to see these native species as costly pests that should be eliminated. Fortunately, government officials have begun taking proactive steps to help reduce conflict. For example, the colony that this mother and pup belong to roosted in Melbourne’s popular Royal Botanic Gardens until 2003 when wildlife biologists relocated the bats to their current, quieter home in Yarra Bend Park.
Even so, larger threats still remain. Last summer, relentless heat gripped Melbourne, killing thousands of grey-head flying foxes in the park—15 percent of the total colony—in just three days. Other colonies fared even worse. Dry conditions and extreme temperatures sparked record-breaking bushfires along Australia’s east coast, destroying thousands of acres of forest that will take decades to regenerate, if it does at all.
While rising global temperatures and habitat loss may be inevitable for the foreseeable future, all is not lost for Australia’s flying foxes. This summer (December to February), Yarra Bend Park employees have set up sprinklers to mist the colony and keep the bats cooler in the event of future heat waves. And more broadly, understanding and appreciation of bats and the critical ecological roles they play are beginning to grow, thanks in large part to native conservation photographer Douglas Gimesy, who captured this stunning image. Gimesy spent three years documenting the Yarra Bend Park colony, and several days in pursuit of a mother and her pup hurtling by. His aim: to spark empathy for one of the world’s more poorly understood creatures and remind us how closely we all rely on one another for survival.
Yarra Bend Park, Kew, Victoria, Australia
Douglas Gimesy is a conservation and wildlife photojournalist who focuses on Australian issues. An Associate Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, his work has been published in National Geographic, Australian Geographic, BBC Wildlife, and Audubon, along with other mainstream newspapers and magazines.
Katie Jewett is a science writer at the California Academy of Sciences, where she loves learning something new about our planet every day. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.