Something small and dark flies overhead, barely noticeable against the night sky that it passes across.

At first it appears clumsy, mind you; it almost looks like it’s struggling to stay airborne. But there is a strange elegance to how it darts up and down without warning.

What’s noticeable is its dark complexion, a pair of large, strong wings, and, if you had its powerful eyesight, a pair of beady eyes and a narrow snout.

However, two things aren’t noticeable: firstly, this animal – the humble flying fox – is a national hero responsible for preventing cataclysmic extinction across the country, and secondly, like many native icons, it is starting to disappear.

Seven flying fox species inhabit a large portion of Australia and Christmas Island, from tropical rainforests in North Queensland to coastal regions in upper Western Australia, to temperate woodlands in Southern Victoria. They thrive in camps of thousands of individuals, spending the day dozing amongst tree limbs, before moving out into the night in search of a meal.

Yet, the foxes adhere to a trend of extinction mirrored in other fauna. Habitat loss, culling, and the effects of climate change are significant factors that are threatening their survival.

Out of seven types of flying foxes, the three species that are listed in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act (1999) – the grey-headed flying fox, the spectacled flying fox, and the Christmas Island flying fox – have declined steadily over recent years.

The remaining species are not listed as endangered by federal or relevant state governments, yet they are not exempt from the pressures their brethren face.

If we lose our native forests because we lose flying foxes… eventually they will collapse. All the species that rely on them will go extinct.

The flying fox has been described as a “keystone species”; a species that plays a paramount role in the structure and functioning of an ecosystem. Without it, catastrophic change would occur, as a foundational pillar would be erased from an environment where many organisms are partially or wholly dependent on it for survival.

Jennefer Mclean, director of Tolga Bat Hospital, said the flying fox lives up to its classification as a vital species by being incredibly skilled at pollinating native plants.

“So they are the longest distance pollinator in Australia, and there are many types of forests that rely on pollination at night. Which is when your birds and bees aren’t around,” she said.

“I mean, you’ve still got moths and stuff, too, but the eucalypt forests especially, rely heavily on them.”

The flying foxes and the trees they preserve have evolved together over 25 million years and have resulted in a deep symbiotic relationship between flora and fauna. Trees such as eucalypts produce higher levels of nectar when the foxes are most active at night, providing a sugary meal for their furry visitors.

In return for sustenance, the foxes spread the tree’s pollen, the male genetic material required for reproduction in plants, from tree to tree as they travel through the night, as well as seeds through defecation. Unlike smaller pollinators like bees, flying foxes can carry larger seeds and travel exponentially longer distances to different locations.

This nocturnal journey is no short flight, according to Claudia Caliari, biodiversity officer for Byron Shire Council in Northern NSW.

“They can fly up to a hundred kilometres a night to find a new source of food, and they bring this genetic diversity from one forest to another,” she said.

“No one other species can do that.”

The genetic diversity the flying foxes uphold prevents plants from being pollinated locally and becoming inbred. If this were to happen, entire forests wouldn’t be able to withstand various pressures such as extreme temperatures and weather events like floods through having a varied gene pool.

Additionally, this would render many native species helpless as they rely on the flying foxes to uphold their source of food and shelter, according to Sandra Guy, a Sydney Wildlife volunteer.

“If we lose our native forests because we lose flying foxes… eventually they will collapse,” she added. “All the species that rely on them will go extinct.”

Unfortunately, Sandra’s concerns may soon be a reality.

Species in Australia not classified as endangered by the federal government do not receive benefits such as government protection and rehabilitation efforts, or are monitored for population health.


Wildlife volunteer Sandra Guy. Photo: Ben Siebert.


While Mclean said it’s difficult to map the decline of some species due to their distribution, the new challenges concerning our shifting climate will put all types under strain.

“Climate change is the big one,” said Mclean. They [flying foxes] drop dead out of the trees at about 42 degrees.”

This was the case in 2018, when a heatwave in Northern Queensland wiped out around 23,000 spectacled flying foxes within two days, equating to a third of the population at the time.

And with the climate getting warmer, this will only become more frequent. The spectacled flying fox has declined from 214,750 individuals in 2005 to 92,880 in 2014.

Climate change isn’t the only factor threatening the foxes. Between 2000 and 2017, 7.7 million hectares of land were cleared in Australia.

Under the EPBC Act, lands that are of ecological importance are automatically protected, and any proposed use of these lands must be assessed by the government.

Only 8 per cent of the 7.7 million hectares cleared over 17 years was referred for assessment.

In addition to this, media reporting of flying foxes has often stigmatised them as disease-carrying and a public health threat.

“There’s so much misinformation in the media about how dangerous flying foxes are due to sensationalised coverage,” said Guy. “The average member of the public is sure of certain things about flying foxes: that they’re disease-ridden vermin in plain proportion, and nothing could be further from the truth.

I think there is a natural, evolutionary instinct to be scared of things that are about at night.

“About 1 per cent of wild flying foxes carry a virus that’s in the same family as rabies called Australian bat lyssavirus. You can’t catch it by accident, you catch it if you decide to handle a microbat or a flying fox that can’t get away, so, it got to be sick, injured, or trapped.”

“The only disease transmission risk is if they bite us or scratch us. However, it is fatal. If people delay (treatment) because they think it’s nothing… symptoms can emerge two weeks to two years after the injury, and if you don’t see a doctor once symptoms have emerged, there is no treatment.

“That’s where a lot of the fear of flying foxes comes from. Yes, they can carry a disease that can be fatal, but in balance, only three people in Australia have ever died from lyssavirus. Ever.”

Guy added the fear of lyssavirus had prompted some to call for wiping out all bats in urban areas.

“People will say “Get rid of the bats, they’re dangerous”… that’s not the case at all,” she said. “The most dangerous animal in Australia is the cow. Farmers die from interactions with their cattle frequently… nobody’s saying ‘get rid of cows’.

“I think there is a natural, evolutionary instinct to be scared of things that are about at night.”

Caliari said she senses an immense danger all species, including flying foxes face with irresponsible use and destruction of natural habitats.

“So flying foxes have evolved with this landscape for 25 million years. But in just 200 years we have changed it so much that where they used to find their forest it’s now grassland or pastures,” she said.

Main image by Ben Siebert.