Project Description

Little Red flying Foxes (Pteropus scapulatus)

Little Red flying foxes look like a smaller version of the 3 larger Australian flying foxes, but they are also very different.

  • they have a much wider distribution, ranging much further inland
  • they give birth at the opposite time of year
  • they are more nomadic than the other three,
  • they feed almost exclusively on nectar and pollen,
  • they often hang in large clusters rather than singly like the other flying foxes. When in these clusters, their combined weight often causes severe though temporary damage to the roost trees.
  • they often share camps with the other three Australian species, but they also often displace them especially when they arrives in large numbers. When this happens at Tolga Scrub the Spectacleds often move to another part of the Scrub, but at Cairns library they often caused all the Spectacleds to leave.

This species is especially dependent on climatic conditions that determine flowering and nectar production as it almost entirely feeds on nectar. There have been starvation events in recent years where significant numbers of young are found dead under the camp. We think that food shortages mean the mothers do not have enough milk and have to abandon their young.  Large numbers of dead Little Red pups have also been found during cold snaps. Most Little Reds give birth in northern Australia where it’s warmer in winter but sometimes there are maternity camps in southern Queensland that are susceptible.

The main threats they face include:

  • Climate change – heat stress events, abnormal weather events (severe hail, drought), changes in feeding habitat
  • Habitat loss – both feeding and roosting – caused by human activity and weather events
  • Entanglement in barbed wire fences. Every year we get large numbers caught during the windy conditions of September and October. The record is 109 caught in one day along one road.
  • Negative public attitudes
  • Dispersal of colonies

Community Conflict

The habit of hanging closely together, damaging trees and arriving in sometimes huge numbers of 500,000+ has sometimes made them very unpopular, resulting in fierce community conflict eg Charters Towers. Queensland Department of Environment and Science with CSIRO and the local Council are trying an innovative approach by developing alternative habitat outside the town. They will try to relocate the animals there, not an easy feat. The other three Australian species can also arrive in large numbers but their numbers are rarely as large. Here is a rare example of a bat-friendly letter to the editor of a Sunshine newspaper, but note the numbers were only about 30,000. Letter to the editor about Little Reds

Iconic photos of Little Red flying foxes in northern Australia often shown them flying down over water to get a drink and fresh water crocodiles leaping up to grab one.

Photos this page: Jurgen Freund. Little Red flying foxes at Herberton during a mast flowering event.

Little red flying foxes are good pollinators with transparent wings.

PTEROPUS SCAPULATUS

DESCRIPTION

The smallest of the Australian flying foxes with rich reddish brown to light brown fur all over its body, though the head is often light grey. The wings are transparent with the light behind them. They are about half the weight of the other three Australian flying foxes, but their wingspan is relatively longer and narrower. The largest Little Red flying fox that has come into care at the Bat Hospital was a male weighing 501gms and a forearm length of 146mm.

DISTRIBUTION & HABITAT

They have a large distribution in Australia from Shark Bay in Western Australia, across northern Australia into Queensland and down into Victoria. Most retreat into the northern parts of Australia in winter to give birth. Although they have a large distribution their nomadic behaviour in search of nectar means they are never in all areas at once. Extralimitally, they also occur on the south coast of New Guinea. Little red flying foxes camp and feed in a broad range of habitats including semi-arid areas to tropical and temperate eucalypt forests, paperbark swamps and monsoon forests. Tolga Scrub is a main camp on the Atherton Tablelands and it is Mabi rainforest. They are extremely mobile travelling 3782–6073 kms every year and have an extremely high estimated daily colony turnover rate  of 36.4 ± 6.5%.

DIET

Their nomadic lifestyle enables them to utilise an often unpredictable food supply of flowering trees, especially Myrtacae family eg eucalypts. They are essential pollinators during mast flower events. They are known to strip palm leaves to eat sugary lerps (from sap) and eat cultivated fruit when other resources are not available.

MATING SEASON

Mating occurs from November to January when the Little Reds congregate in large camps. Males obtain harems of 2-5 females in small territories that they actively defend from other males.

BIRTHING SEASON

After a gestation of 5 months the young are born in March or April in predominantly female camps.

LIFE HISTORY OF THE PUP TO JUVENILE AGE

When the pup is born it cannot maintain its own body temperature and must remain on mum all the time, hanging on as she flies out at night to feed. The claws bed into her fur and the mouth is firmly on the nipple. By about 6 weeks of age the pup is too heavy to fly with and it is left in a creche in the roost with other pups. Here they become very active at night doing a lot of flapping and eventually short flights by 9 weeks of age. Until now they have been completely dependent on their mother’s milk. As they gain strength for longer flights they learn to feed on nectar, until they are fully weaned by 5 months age. They tend to hang with their own age group before fully joining the adult like of the camp in their second year.

POPULATION

Their large distribution makes any reliable counting impossible so little if known about population size. Some camps contain over a million animals.

CONSERVATION

As essential pollinators over large parts of Australia, the health of our forests depend on this species if anything even more than the other three species.

MORE INFORMATION

Churchill, Sue (2008) Australian Bats. Out of print, this book is soon to be superseded by an expanded digital version
Hall, Les & Richards, Greg (2000) Flying Foxes and Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia
IUCN Red List
Extreme mobility of the world’s largest flying mammals creates key challenges for management and conservation Wellbergen et al 2020
Little Reds often arrive in huge numbers during a mast flowering event.

 Little Red feeding behaviour in the wild is mainly licking nectar. In captivity the ripe bananas, blossom, banana smoothie and juice bottles allow much of their feeding to be licking too, rather than chewing. On one video you will see them licking the pear rather than biting into it as the three larger species will prefer to do.