An Indian flying fox feeds on a fruit on the streets of Mumbai. They are the largest of all bats in mainland India and have historically coexisted in human-dominated areas. Photo by Sarang Naik.

Different species, different habits

“The RatG13 virus – somewhat similar to the COVID-19 virus – was isolated from one out of the 1421 species of bats but hatred spread against all species just like with the current outbreak,” said Murugavel. “There are only three species of vampire bats in the world and all of them are in parts of Central/South America and no, they do not attack humans for their blood. Each species has its own story to tell.”

Indeed. Although nocturnal, since they forage in the night, my neighbours have obliterated the daytime slumber myth. Flying foxes are the only bats that spend their daytime fully exposed to daylight, said Murugavel. “This could mean exposure to disturbance and attacks by daytime predators, rendering it vital to keep awake during the day. This is still speculation, there’s much research left to do to fully understand this.”

As it is with their calls. Flying foxes are loud. Imagine a concert crowd welcoming its favourite artist. Now imagine living next to that crowd. If they’re awake, they’re chattering. “Insectivorous bats are actually much louder, thankfully we can’t hear them because they call in the ultrasound. Echolocating bats typically call at about 70-80 decibels, which sounds like a firecracker,” said Chakravarty. But flying foxes (almost all fruit bats) are non-echolocating and predominantly rely on their eyes and sense of smell for navigation and food. And while research on the vocalisations of a different cave-dwelling fruit bat species confirms their ability to learn dialects from their roost mates, flying foxes appear to use vocalisations for mother-pup interactions and to navigate the roost life, so to speak. Their language is yet unknown.

Of new mothers, mid-wives and pup crèches

Bats move upright only during delivery (and excretion). Mothers fly with their new-born pups for the first few weeks, even until they’re one-third of their body weight, after which they park them at different places before foraging forays. They return to pick them up in the mornings, from a baby bat crèche so to speak.

A tree with numerous flying foxes – like most sites you’ll see – is likely to be a colony, which remains loyal to a site for years. “While it is still uncertain if they’re related, some preliminary evidence suggests there is a rank hierarchy in the males,” said Murugavel.

But it’s the revelation of allomaternal care or in simple terms “mid-wives” in the bat world that has me doing mental cartwheels. “It has been observed that experienced, ‘helper’ females of the Rodrigues flying fox, endemic to the eponymous island in the Indian ocean, help new mothers give birth, even imitating vaginal cramps in front of the delivering female to assist her in a smooth birth,” Murugavel said.

A colony of Indian flying fox. Flying foxes are the only bats that spend their daytime fully exposed to daylight, making them easier to observe along with biodiversity such as birds. Photo by Harshjeet Singh Bal/Flickr.
A colony of Indian flying fox. Flying foxes are the only bats that spend their daytime fully exposed to daylight, making them easier to observe along with biodiversity such as birds. Photo by Harshjeet Singh Bal/Flickr.

Symbol of love, not of evil

Women supporting women aside, this seemingly outlandish animal is more relatable than we would have thought. More inclusive, even. According to this recent paper, apart from a small number of primate species, the Indian flying fox appears to be unique in the animal world in practicing oral sex as well as homosexual acts, “the utility of which appear to have generated considerable discussion with no understanding yet as to why bats might engage in such sexual behaviour (Kunz & Hosken 2009).”

Love forms a large part of their narrative. They appear in multiple references in Tamil Sangam literature (~2000 years old) as symbols of love, not evil or scary. One poem (from a book named Nattrinai), describes the sorrow of a woman who misses her husband. She observes the flight of bats leaving their roost, drawing comparisons to her husband’s unfulfilled promise to return home.

These fascinating animals live around us. While scientists continue their research on them, citizens could probably include them in our observations of the cities we inhabit, just like we do with birds and marine creatures. It might remind us that we’ve lived with them disease-free for longer than we’ve been afraid of them infecting us. Chakravarty added, “The best way to deal with them is to let them be, avoid eating fallen fruits with bite marks (contact with the saliva of any animal can cause infections) and keep our pets and ourselves away from their faeces.”

Bird watching in urban areas has proved to help citizens engage with their neighbourhood green spaces, and the same could be true for bats. Shweta Wagh, Assistant Professor at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies and co-founder at Collective for Spatial Alternatives, said, “New constructions or infrastructure projects are increasingly transforming diverse urban neighbourhoods that have been historically conducive to wildlife. Historic buildings and older building societies with plenty of indigenous, old-growth trees and groves ensured that various creatures, including bats, bees, and birds could share that space.”

“While development control regulations for new constructions often make it mandatory to plant a minimum number of trees, this does not factor in the kind of trees that have ecological value or support wildlife. For example, ecologically important trees including fishtail palms, ficus species like peepul or banyan, etc. that facilitate food and pollination are often chopped down to plant a small patch of supari trees, which will not perform those supportive roles. Urban planners need to incorporate ecological learning in their strategies,” Wagh expanded.

Indian flying fox feed on fruits and nectar and are declared as vermin under the Wildlife Protection Act. Protecting existing urban green spaces is important to conserve these animals. Photo by Manojiritty/Wikimedia Commons.

In the last year, I have watched these flying foxes share this urban space: a rain tree at a busy hospital intersection with buildings all around and wires (which they sometimes choose over trees to hang from) crisscrossing above the canopies. It’s made me curious about rain trees and realised they don’t roost where they eat, but love chickoo trees to have dinner at. Due to my increased immobility from lockdown, I know when they leave the roost, when they return in the morning, at what time the sun illuminates their rust to golden. I have read about roosting sites being chopped down out of fear, and worry about their incessant chatter; it might give someone one more reason to drive them away. They’re familiar to me now, neighbours almost.

As Murugavel said, “From an urban ecology perspective, they are an indication of how the sparse natural vegetation still feeds and sustains such large plant-dependent wildlife. I would see them as a constant reminder that we are just a single node in a big ecological network that comprises all forms of organisms coexisting together on this planet.”

Going forward, recognising how different species use urban areas might be the only way to sustainable cities.

As for these giants of the sky, they stick to their corners, their females support females, they’re sexually experimental and inspire regional poetry.

What’s not to love?

Explore more stories of wildlife beyond protected areas

Banner image: An Indian flying fox, one of the 14 fruit bat species in India, takes off from its roost in Mumbai. Photo by Sejal Mehta.

Article published by Sahana
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