THIS STRIKING IMAGE of a ‘clump’ of grey-headed flying foxes has been shortlisted in the ‘Animal Behaviour’ category of the 2020 Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year awards. 

Photographer and zoologist Doug Gimesy has been photographing flying foxes for many years and intimately understands their struggles, particularly with climate change.

Doug explains that, during extreme heat events, grey-headed flying-foxes may descend from the safety of the tree canopy in a desperate search for somewhere cool.

“Ironically, and sadly, this behaviour can result in what experts call ‘clumping’ – where the number of bats in close proximity means that they can get even hotter. 

“When this happens, it’s often a precursor to mass deaths and at the base of this tree, there were already hundreds of dead flying-foxes,” Doug says.

The photograph was taken at the Yarra Bend grey-headed flying-fox colony on 20 December 2019 during a heat-stress event, when temperatures exceeded 40°C in the shade.

“It is estimated that over three days, at least 5000 flying-foxes from this colony perished; the majority being pups, which is the equivalent of at least 10 per cent of the peak summer colony size.”

For Doug, the photograph is one of many images that prove the species’ future is bleak if temperatures continue to rise. 

“This photograph tells us that they’re in trouble from climate change driven heat events.

“Since European settlement, Australia’s only endemic flying-fox, the grey-headed flying-fox population has plummeted to probably less than 10% of what it once was.

“… In 2019/20, drought-driven food shortages followed by multiple extreme heat-stress events took further major tolls, killing tens of thousands. Following the 2019/20 bushfires, any impact on them is especially significant given their role as a keystone species.”

Flying-foxes can be a divisive species, especially after COVID-19. But over the years, Doug has developed a soft-spot for them and uses photography to advocate for the species

“They are highly social and intelligent, wonderfully evolved and, for a wild animal, they are incredibly trusting of humans once they understand you are not trying to hurt them. 

“As I’ve got to know them, I’ve really come to appreciate how magnificent and also important they are and I’ve also learnt how misunderstood they are by so many people.”

See more shortlisted images from the ‘Animal Behaviour’ category:

Related: AG Nature Photographer of the Year 2020: Animal behaviour shortlist