Australian Bushfires and Heat Are Killing Flying Foxes by the Thousands
Australia’s extreme heat and raging blazes are destroying colonies of the migratory bats. Is extinction on the horizon?
Bushfires fueled by climate change that are raging across eastern Australia have burned millions of acres, destroyed thousands of buildings, and killed 25 people.
But there are other victims: Australia’s endangered flying foxes. These furry, doe-eyed, puppy-size migratory bats have died by the thousands in the fires and in the months of extreme heat that preceded the blazes.
While the bushfires have affected billions of animals and killed potentially millions of them, the flying foxes are uniquely vulnerable. Above a certain temperature, they can simply drop dead from the trees where they roost. Stressed adult bats that survive the heat often abandon their pups —a death sentence for the helpless babies. Fires have destroyed millions of the trees the fruit-eating bats rely on.
Despite desperate rescue efforts, as many as a fifth of Australia’s flying foxes have died in just a few months. And with the southern continent’s hot, dry summer in full flow and bushfires likely to continue, many more bats could perish.
Owing to runaway global warming, this season’s extraordinary temperatures and fires could become the new normal. In that case, flying foxes are almost certainly doomed to extinction.
“They’re the canaries in the coal mine for climate change,” Evan Quartermain, head of programs for the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society International, told The Daily Beast.
Australia’s wildlife rescuers are panicking, but the country’s climate change-denying national leaders definitely aren’t. “This ecological nightmare should be sounding very loud alarm bells in the halls of parliament, but it’s not,” Lou Bonomi, a rescuer with the Fly By Night Bat Clinic in Melbourne, told The Daily Beast.
Seven species of flying fox call Australia home. Three are classified as “vulnerable” or “endangered” by Australia’s Ministry of the Environment. Prior to the heat and fires, hunting and deforestation were the biggest threats. Two species, the gray-headed flying fox and the spectacled flying fox, live in large numbers in the eastern bushfire zone and have suffered the most in recent months.
As recently as early 2019, there were around 700,000 gray-headed flying foxes and around 100,000 spectacled flying foxes in eastern Australia, according to government surveys. Then the temperatures rose and fires broke out. 2019 was the hottest and driest year on record in Australia, according to government statistics.
The annual bushfire season that began in late 2019 also has broken records. Nearly 26 million acres have burned so far. That’s seven million more acres than burned in the Amazon’s own catastrophic fires last year.
Flying foxes suffer potentially fatal heat stress at temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit. “We have about 30 of us who will prepare to head out if we see the forecast is going to be 40 degrees Celsius or higher,” Bonomi said. “You can imagine our dread when we had forecasts of 44 and 43 degrees both in two weeks.”
Rescuers try to cool down the bats by gently spraying them with water. It’s easier said than done. There are hundreds of flying-fox colonies. Some are nearly a mile across and number tens of thousands of bats roosting high in the trees.
“We walk up and down with firefighting backpacks filled with water and quietly try to cool them,” Bonomi said. “They are so stressed and so flighty that you really have to go easy doing this, despite what your instinct tells you to do. Go too close or move in too soon and the bats will take flight. This can kill them as they’re already so hot and exhausted. Sometimes it's just too late, you reach them and they will drop dead at your feet.”
“Some of the younger ones you can offer water for them to lap, cool them down and keep offering water,” Bonomi added, “but honestly, you spend half an hour with one little one and in the meantime 20 around you die.”
Bonomi said 20 percent of the flying foxes in the biggest nearby colony have died in recent months. Conservationists are still tallying up the countrywide bat death toll. It could be in the tens of thousands in a total population that was already in decline owing to hunting and habitat destruction.
Rescue groups and animal hospitals have taken in thousands of abandoned pups for rehabilitation. Humane Society International is helping to supply rehabilitators with food for the pups. Fly By Night Bat Clinic is experimenting with sprinklers that could help keep colonies cool. Both groups are raising money for rescuers and rehabilitators.
But all these measures are short-term fixes to a long-term problem. Barring a global green-energy revolution, atmospheric carbon is likely to increase and temperatures will spike even higher. If you think 2019 and 2020 have been bad for bats, try to imagine 2021. Or 2030, for that matter.
“Given that extreme heat events are becoming more frequent and intense under climate change, the long-term prospects of the species must be considered as of serious concern,” Justin Welbergen, associate professor of animal ecology at Western Sydney University and president of the Australasian Bat Society, told The Daily Beast.
The federal government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison has reacted with a veritable shrug. The Department of the Environment declined to comment for this story.
“We have a conservative government of climate skeptics, who prioritize wealth, big business and non-renewable energy sources that are ruining us faster than we can fix,” Bonomi explained. “While our beautiful country burns, our prime minister holidays. While entire species literally collapse around us, the government is investing in coal-mining and logging our old growth forests.”
“If governments at all levels don’t do everything they can to make Australia’s nature more resilient to climate change, I don’t think flying foxes, and in turn us humans, will stand a chance,” Quartermain said.