The death of hundreds of dehydrated flying foxes speaks to a much larger issue

By Angela Heathcote 11 January 2018
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The death of hundreds of flying foxes in Campbelltown in south-west Sydney over the weekend is a demonstration of the impacts of climate change and urbanisation on local bat populations. According to one expert, it’ll only get worse without effective planning.

OVER THE weekend, temperatures in Sydney reached an 80-year record high of 47.3 degrees and unfortunately, an entire colony of flying foxes, approximately 400, fell victim to the searing heat.

Pictures of large mounds of these unique megabats were captured and posted to the Help Save the Wildlife and Bushlands in Campbelltown Facebook page and were met with collective outrage.

According to Micaela Jemison, bat ecologist and science communicator, when temperatures reach 42°C or more flying foxes can no longer function effectively and dependent young will often die from starvation after becoming orphaned.

Several licensed volunteers from WIRES managed to save around a hundred bats while working on site, but the number of causalities was devastating.

In an interview with Fairfax, Cambelltown colony manager Kate Ryan recalled the scene. “I don’t know how many times I bent down and got on my knees to pick up a dead baby… There were dead bodies everywhere.”

Impact of climate change and urbanisation

Micaela says that the recent increase in flying fox causalities seems to be largely connected with the increase in extreme heat events in Australia due to climate change.

“While these events most likely have occurred in the past, it is the increasing frequency of these mass heat fatalities that is concerning.

“Between 1994 and 2008, scientists recorded more than 30,000 flying foxes dying in 19 extreme heat events across Australia. Since then, flying foxes have been dying from extreme heat almost every year, with more than 45,500 perishing across Australia in 2014 and hundreds more in the last few days.”

And as temperatures steadily increase and flying foxes are pushed further away from habitats that support their needs, their futures become more and more bleak.

“Flying fox colonies in urban areas have become an area of conflict in many places around Australia.

“Unfortunately, like humans, flying foxes like to roost near rivers, lakes and creeks. Being close to the water allows them easy access to water for drinking and cooling off as well as providing a cooler habitat than trees further away.”

But with more effective planning, Micaela says it’s possible to at least avoid such huge death tolls.

“By identifying and developing potential areas with key habitat needs such as water and fruit and flower-bearing vegetation, local communities can encourage flying foxes to take up residence in areas further away from town centres.”

This kind of proactive thinking has already proven to work, Micaela added.

“The Victorian State government and other stakeholders moved a grey-headed flying fox colony from the Royal Botanica Gardens in Melbourne to a more suitable location along the Yarra River in the early 2000s.”

Flying Fox friends

If you don’t mind having flying foxes in your backyard, Micaela advises double-checking that the netting on your fruit trees isn’t a hazard.

“If you must cover fruit trees, do the finger test. If a finger fits through the holes, the net is not wildlife friendly.”

And if you see a dehydrated bat, make sure you contact your local rehabilitation group.

“The handling of a dehydrated flying fox by unexperienced people can cause greater stress on the animal. Qualified wildlife rescuers not only have experience with handling stressed wild animals, but also the appropriate vaccinations to handle them safely.”