Setting the Record Right-Side Up on Bats
Think bats are creepy? They’re cast as villains every Halloween, but bats are heroes not horrors. From pest control to pollination, bats worldwide provide essential roles in ecologies and human economies. The United Nations Environmental Programme, which organizes green-friendly efforts in developing countries, even declared 2012 the International Year of the Bat.
Bruce Wayne, though, may have thought twice about styling his superhero alter ego after the Egyptian fruit bat. How intimidating is a baby-faced winged mammal with a 6-inch body length that spends its nocturnal hours pollinating plants and gorging on bananas, apricots and figs? The Dark Knight would have a tough time battling the Joker with fruit salad and a gardening spade.
But the zoo’s 17-member bachelor colony of male Egyptian fruit bats, which arrived at Regenstein Small Mammal–Reptile House (SMRH) a year ago, is a fruit- and veggie-eating machine.
“They go through about 6 pounds of fruit and chopped vegetables a day,” says SMRH Curator Diane Mulkerin. “They also get bottles of fruit juice and water. They’re a small mammal that flies, so they have a high metabolism.”
SMRH keepers lay out the daily buffet in bowls suspended from wire mesh. The bats hang from the mesh and nibble away.
“They get a variety of fruits, and it’s mixed together, so they can’t pick and choose,” says Mulkerin. “We don’t want one bat deciding that bananas are his favorite thing and that’s all he’s going to eat.”
In their native African habitat, Egyptian fruit bats—also known as Egyptian rousettes (Rousettus aegyptiacus)—nosh on fruits and flowers from a variety of trees, including baobob, fig, lilac, mulberry, carob and sycamore. Colonies from northern to southern Africa and along the coastline of the Arabian peninsula disperse the seeds of many plant species across an extensive range. They also pollinate fruit trees by extracting nectar from flowers with their long tongues. Their sharp teeth are well adapted to bite into fruit skins.
Egyptian fruit bats also possess an excellent sense of smell and keen night vision and use echolocation (via high-pitched tongue clicks) when navigating in the dark. That’s a helpful tool in the wild, where colonies can number from a few dozen to thousands of members who roost in caves during the day and forage for food at night.
Colony members stick together but have an interesting gender hierarchy. Offspring stay with their parents’ colony for life, but during the biannual breeding seasons in spring and fall males and females separate into bachelor and maternity colonies. Mothers give birth to one pup who is able to fly about two months later.
At SMRH, it’s strictly a boys club, though not an old one. In zoos, Egyptian fruit bats can live to 25 years—which adds up to a whole lot of fruit feasting.
by Craig Keller • Published October 17, 2012
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