Wednesday, June 29

A megabat: ‘Well, it’s practically a fox with wings’ | Helen sullivan

meLate at night in Sydney, clouds of bats move across the sky. They calculate your trip so that there is too little light to distinguish something other than a silhouette, which is enough light so that you can see, very clearly, the contours of your legs and feet colliding with each other. entrechat – while flapping its wings.

I’m not sure I’ll ever stop having the exact same thought on this: “Oh my gosh, you can see their feet tapping together. Oh Lord.”

Bats are how you know where you are. The trees of Sydney include a mix of British oaks and pines, Brazilian jacarandas, and many types of smaller, green and silver shrubs that, until I moved here, I thought were distinctive of the Western Cape in South Africa. Here they also have proteas, or waratahs. But the bats give the game away. They do not use echolocation, but in the city they fly on routes that reflect roads.

More precisely, bats are gray-headed flying foxes, one of the largest bat species – megabats. Once, in 1863, they were named “gray-headed vampires.” In a National Geographic video a single bat, looking straight into the camera, spreads its wings and then its pointed snout, in a way that is clearly like a vampire saying “Ta-da.”

The rebrand from bat to fox is bold, but you can imagine the British wildlife enthusiast doing his PR: “Wow, he’s practically a winged fox!”

On their travels at sunset, they look for water. One of the ways they drink is by skimming the surface of a river or pond, so that their fur gets wet; they lick the droplets. They eat fruits, nectar, and flowers. Their faces are covered in pollen: a mega yellow-headed bat.

A gray-headed flying fox eating nectar from flowers.
A gray-headed flying fox that turns yellow when it eats nectar from flowers. Photograph: Andrew Mercer / Wikimedia

Like Sydney’s greenery, its vast Centennial Park still bears the marks of strange colonial fantasies and seems to keep reproducing new ones. What remains in my mind from a recent walk is a series of still images, like the images of the plaza scene in A Room with a View, before Lucy is overwhelmed by the heat and violence, of a statue of a woman at the top of a column, all the missing fingers of her hand. Brightly colored sports cars. A girl struggling to control her horse.

Late at night, bats come to the giant native fig tree outside my apartment. I hear the particular creak when the force of their landing pulls the leafy branches down and the reverse creak when the branches bounce.

I used to believe that they were finally home, wings closing to rest. But, in fact, they return to another camp before dawn. Now instead I imagine the inverted tree and the bats up, dancing in moderation practiced and his mouth full of fruit.

Bats hanging upside down.

“The Nature of …” is a column by Helen Sullivan devoted to interesting animals, insects, plants, and natural phenomena. Is there an intriguing creature or particularly lively plant that you think would delight our readers? Let us know on Twitter @helenrsullivan or by email: [email protected]

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