Flying Foxes Facts: What you need to know

The grey-headed flying fox is the largest bat found in Australia, with a wingspan up to one metre. It is one of three kinds of flying fox found around mainland Australia

They have been targeted as a nuisance in the local area and can spread diseases, most notably Hendra Virus, but the species plays an important environmental role.

Australian flying foxes

The species is native to Australia and, aside from suffering a few regrettably unimaginative names, flying foxes are one of several threatened Aussie animals.

The Grey-headed Flying Fox

Is easily recognisable by its rusty reddish-coloured collar, grey head and hairy legs. It is also the most vulnerable species because it competes with humans for prime coastal habitat along the south-east Queensland, NSW and Victorian coasts.

Black Flying Fox

You guessed it, they are almost completely black in colour with only a slight rusty red-coloured collar and a light frosting of silvery grey on its belly. Black Flying Foxes are more common across the northern and north-eastern coast of Australia.

Little Red Flying Fox

Yep. It’s little and red – the smallest Australian Flying-fox is often found further inland than it’s batty cousins.

Where do they live?

Mostly on the coast, but they have been spotted further inland.

Little red flying-fox (Pteropus scapulatus) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Little red flying-fox (Pteropus scapulatus) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

What do Flying Foxes eat?

Grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

The batty critters feed on pollen and nectar and play an important ecological role as pollinators.

According to an Environment NSW report, Flying foxes act as seed dispersers for Eucalyptus, Syncarpia, Angophora, Melaleuca and Banksia trees, but in some areas they also eat a range of rainforest fruit and consequently influence the reproductive and evolutionary processes of many forest types, including hardwoods (DECC, in preparation).

Black flying-fox (Pteropus alecto) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Black flying-fox (Pteropus alecto) indicative species distribution. Photo sourced: environment.nsw.gov.au

Are they under threat?

Short answer: yes.

The Grey-headed flying fox is one of many threatened Australian species.

There is a considerable list of threats, some humans are responsible for and others relating to other wildlife.

Unregulated shooting, roosting site disturbance, clearing of native vegetation and power lines have all contributed to the flying foxes threatened state. 

Extended drought conditions forcing the Australian white Ibis to migrate closer ot the east cost has caused problems for Flying Foxes as well.

 Due to a dramatic increase of Australian white ibis using the roost trees as nesting sites, and the continuous use of the site by grey-headed flying foxes, the vegetation was in steady decline which, if it had continued, would cause grey-headed flying foxes to seek a new camp in the region. 

What can we do about it?

The national monitoring program for the grey-headed flying-fox commenced on 14 February 2013 and is conducted every three months. This is the biggest census of grey-headed flying-foxes ever undertaken across the species' entire national range. The aim of the census is to deliver a reliable benchmark on the current size of the grey-headed flying-fox population in 2013, and to monitor population trends in the future.

Disease and risk

The following information was sourced from Environment NSW. Click here for the full article.

Flying-fox camps in public places, such as parks, school grounds and residential areas, can sometimes raise concerns about possible health risks for community members. Concerns include flying-fox infections, noise, odour and the impact of flying-fox droppings on houses, cars, and washing.

Human infections with viruses borne by flying-foxes are very rare. In Australia at December 2016, there have been three confirmed cases of Australian Bat Lyssavirus in humans. All were in Queensland

Australian Bat Lyssavirus

Australian Bat Lyssavirus is found in the saliva of infected animals. The virus can only be spread to other animals and people through the bite or scratch of a flying-fox. Australian Bat Lyssavirus is not spread through flying fox urine or droppings.

Hendra Virus

There is no evidence that people can catch Hendra directly from flying-foxes. It is believed that horses catch the Hendra virus when they eat food which has recently been contaminated with an infected flying-fox's urine, saliva or birth products.

Hendra can be transmitted from infected horses to humans following close contact with body fluids, like blood and saliva from infected horses.

There has been a small number of confirmed cases of Hendra virus in humans, also all in Queensland.

Living near flying-fox colonies

There have been no reports of any infections with Hendra virus acquired by wildlife handlers from working with flying-foxes. There is only one report of Australian Bat Lyssavirus infection in a wildlife handler who is thought to have been bitten by an insectivorous bat. There are no reports of these infections acquired from living in close proximity to flying-fox camps. This indicates that living near a flying-fox camp does not pose a significant risk for infection with these viruses.

Droppings

Direct handling of flying-fox droppings should be avoided. The health risks associated with flying-fox droppings relate mainly to the small potential risk to humans of gastrointestinal or lung diseases. Flying-foxes may carry a range of bacteria in their guts and, similar to domestic pets and birds, their droppings may contaminate the environment and potentially cause illness in humans if swallowed.

Droppings from many animals including flying-foxes may end up on roofs. These contaminants can then be washed into rainwater tanks when it rains. NSW Health recommends against drinking water from rainwater tanks where there is public drinking water available. Advice on safely managing rainwater for drinking purposes where there is no alternative supply is available on the NSW Health website at Rainwater tanks.

Scratched or bitten by a flying-fox?

If you are bitten or scratched by a flying-fox, the wound should immediately be washed gently but thoroughly with soap and water for at least 5 minutes, an antiseptic, such as povidone-iodine should be applied, and a doctor consulted as soon as possible.

Members of the community should not handle flying-foxes unless they have been trained, vaccinated against Australian Bat Lyssavirus and use the proper protective equipment.

If an injured or distressed flying-fox is found, the animal should not be handled. Go to The NSW Wildlife Council [external link]  website which provides public information on who to contact for wildlife rescues or call your local wildlife rescue service such as WIRES on 1300 094737.

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