Bats are usually given a wide berth. With the misinformation around COVID-19, they’re seen as carriers that can transmit horrible diseases to us. We just don’t seem to have a lot in common. Except perhaps, for our cities.Research has shown that flying foxes exhibit some remarkable characteristics – allomaternal care or a mid-wife system, homosexuality, and are referenced as symbols of love in historical literature.Bird watching in urban areas has proved to help citizens engage with their neighbourhood green spaces, and the same could be true for bats.Urban planners need to incorporate ecological learning in their strategies to make space for bats in an increasingly transforming urban ecosystem. Dusk settles over the city. On cue, the sky brings out its colour palette. As deep oranges and reds take over, the day – with its creatures – shifts. It’s rush hour. Egrets and cormorants fly across, kites circle up and above until they don’t. Crows gather at rooftop tanks, planning little murders. The skies empty. In the canopy of the rain tree opposite my house in Mumbai, black upside-down shapes – appearing like large, rectangular fruits – begin to stir. Enormous, leathery wings unfurl among the branches, fanning the wind. The hitherto quiet tree erupts with chatter – squeaks, and screeches that rapidly rise into a cacophony of noises. One by one, Indian flying foxes (Pteropus medius) fill the sky with their goliath wings, circling the trees around, leaving in groups or alone, some soaring high, some taking well-known routes, until the tree is silent. Sun’s out, the moon’s in. And like clockwork, the night shift begins. A little over a year ago, I moved into a room that faced a roosting site of Indian flying foxes. It took me a while to notice them, conditioned, as I was to find colour among the leaves – the hues of the coppersmith, or the green of the parakeets. We habitually give bats a wide berth. They’re not conventionally beautiful, they’re associated with vampires and demons in popular culture, they claim the nights while we function through the day and their worldview is literally the polar opposite to ours. A roosting site, a place where bats settle for rest or sleep, on a tree amidst buildings in Mumbai. Urban green spaces are vital as they host a variety of living organisms. Photo by Sejal Mehta. There are over 1,400 species of bats worldwide. Over a third of bat species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are considered threatened or data deficient, and well over half of the species have unknown or decreasing population trends. Predominantly, there are two types of bats – fruit bats and insectivorous. Other groups (by diet) include those that are carnivorous, nectarivorous (that don’t eat fruits but only sip nectar), and blood-feeding vampire bats. India has a diverse population of bats; at least 128 species belonging to nine families. Out of the 14 fruit bat species in the country, there are five species of flying foxes, and only one of them – the Indian flying fox – is distributed throughout the mainland; the other four are in the Andamans. The Indian flying fox is the largest of all bats in the mainland. Flying foxes get their name from their long snout and ears, which give them a fox-like appearance. Globally, they are distributed throughout the old world tropics (mainly on the continents of Asia, Australia, and Africa). Now, with the misinformation on bats in relation to COVID-19, bats are seen as carriers that can transmit horrible diseases to us. We just don’t seem to have a lot in common. Except perhaps, for our cities. It would seem that like most creatures, safety and food would be primary factors in setting up home. Except for Salim Ali’s fruit bat, fruit bats are listed under Schedule V (the vermin category) of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. Farmers consider them pests especially for commercial fruits like mangoes, guavas, grapes, and sapotas. In urban areas, this conflict does not arise. So, how do these creatures use our cities? “Many species choose cities and make the most of urban opportunities,” said researcher Rohit Chakravarty. “Flying foxes, pipistrelles, short-nosed fruit bats, greater yellow house bats – all of these are commensal species, although more data is needed on how and if bats and humans benefit by living together in an urban area.” Commensals are species that benefit from another species without causing either advantage or disadvantage to them. “I’ve never seen these in forests or away from human settlements. They actively choose to live among people but we don’t know why,” said Chakravarty. “Insectivorous bats feed on pest insects while fruit bats eat fruits and disperse their seeds (in strictly urban areas, seed dispersal by fruit bats may not be very beneficial because the seeds land on concrete where they can’t germinate).” But there are other benefits – they’re marvellous subjects to observe. Built for… anything Over the year, I have been gobsmacked at how their bodies are designed to navigate spaces. Baheerathan Murugavel, who has been researching behavioural aspects of flying foxes for the past six years said, “Bats suspend their entire body weight from their toes and claws. They use a tendon-locking mechanism just like birds of prey, as long as they are hanging. The lock releases once the bat takes flight enabling them to “uncling” and take off. There is no muscle energy required for this process, it’s all in the hook of the claw; this is why you see bats hanging on branches even after they’re dead.” That explains how they hold on like pendulums as Mumbai’s legendary monsoon beats down on them. Their wings switch roles according to the season – in the monsoon, they bring out their waterproofing tools, by secreting oily sebum from sebaceous glands. This forms a protective layer that acts like a raincoat against the watery onslaught. In the summer, these bats fan their wings to keep cool (this activity is the most common to spot) and in winter, the same wings trap heat tightly around the body. Bats are the only mammals with true flight and flying foxes of the genus Pteropus comprise some of the largest of all bats, providing an easy opportunity for us to include them in our idea of watching nature, and understand that they’re not actively trying to kill us. In that, to also acknowledge that not all bats are the same.