Grey-headed Flying-foxes in South Australia

Arrival and establishment

Grey-headed Flying-foxes have been recorded intermittently in South Australia for many decades, with a permanent camp only becoming established in Adelaide from 2010.

Since 2010, Grey-headed Flying-fox numbers increased incrementally in Adelaide with regular monitoring revealing that there are now approximately 10,000 bats residing here. See the graph below.

Grey-headed Flying-fox camp size in Adelaide 2017  

The arrival of these bats in Adelaide corresponds with other large movements of grey-headed flying foxes at the same time. It is expected that drought conditions in parts of the species’ range forced animals to look further afield for food, with reports of the species in other unexpected areas such as Tasmania and islands in Bass Strait.

In the last 30 years, the flying foxes’ range has been contracting in Queensland and New South Wales and expanding southwards into Victoria and South Australia. The drought conditions are also likely to have been compounded by existing pressures relating to habitat loss and the effects of climate change.

Historically, South Australia would have been inhospitable to these bats, however, urbanisation has created new habitats and opportunities for them to access year-round water and food supplies, including from native and non-native urban tree plantings. The reliability of these urban food resources may also reduce the need for migratory movements.

As occurred in Melbourne 30 years ago, the establishment of a permanent grey-headed flying fox camp in Adelaide represents a response by a native species to the processes of urbanisation.

With Adelaide receiving the hottest and driest conditions within their national range, it seems unlikely that the species will venture further west in South Australia where conditions get progressively hotter and drier.

See also Future trends for flying foxes in South Australia

Bat camps and roosting ecology

Flying foxes hang upside down in trees to roost during the day, usually with their wings folded or wrapped around their bodies.

They are vocal, intelligent and social animals, aggregating in large numbers at their roosts. These “camps” are important sites for social organisation, and provide protection from predators. Camp sites can be used regularly for long periods (e.g. 100 years+).

Flying foxes may use a range of habitats for their roosts but typically they set up camps in tall, reasonably dense trees adjacent to a water source. In Adelaide for example, Grey-headed Flying-foxes roost in tall trees near the entrance to the Adelaide Zoo, beside the River Torrens.

Grey-headed Flying-foxes can tolerate some level of human disturbance. These urban camps provide the bats with easy access to food and water within their preferred foraging range of 20 kilometres. 

Bats have camp sites that they use permanently or intermittently, and tree health can decline at continually-used sites. Adelaide has only a single camp site where bats roost continuously and tree health is being monitored.

It is not uncommon for Grey-headed Flying-fox camps to comprise tens of thousands of individuals. As a result, camps can be raucous with distinct smells. Males will use loud calls and strongly-scented secretions to mark their mating territories. Females also vocalise to find their young within the camp.

Listen to an audio file of the Adelaide bat camp.

Bats leave the camp around dusk each evening and return before dawn. Departure time may fluctuate with food availability; bats may leave earlier if food is limited or far away and later if food is plentiful or nearby.

Grey-headed Flying-fox foraging range

Foraging range of Grey-headed Flying-foxes from the Adelaide camp site; optimal foraging range is within 20 km of the camp site (inner circle), but bats may range up to 50 km from the camp (outer circle) each night in search of food.

Diet

In South Australia, Grey-headed Flying-foxes feed in tree canopies on blossom and nectar of banksias, grevilleas, tea-trees and gum trees e.g. spotted and lemon-scented gums, and on the fleshy fruit of date palms, lilly pillys, Moreton Bay figs, and mulberries. 

Extreme heat events

Incidences of extreme climate events are increasing in intensity, duration and frequency. Extreme heat events are extended periods of several days or more, of very hot temperatures (>40ºC).

Roosting among exposed branches in tree canopies makes flying foxes particularly sensitive to extreme heat. This heat can cause widespread mortality to flying foxes across their range.

High summer temperatures, which coincide with low humidity, occur around the same time as pups are being raised. As pups are often less capable of moving to more shaded or cooler locations, these young individuals have been most prone to heat mortality in South Australia.

During extreme heat days flying foxes will fan their wings, seek shade, pant and spread saliva over the body. If heat stress persists, bats start falling out of the trees and crawling around on the ground looking for cool areas. However, bats are close to death when they fall from their trees. Understorey vegetation that includes shrubs would normally provide cool refuges beneath roost trees in natural areas, but these habitats are often absent from urban camp sites.

Close monitoring of all flying fox camps is recommended when temperatures exceed 42ºC. In South Australia, Fauna Rescue and Adelaide Bat Care monitor Adelaide’s Grey-headed Flying-fox camp during extreme heat conditions. Their actions reduce the likelihood of unvaccinated people coming into contact with bats and enable rehabilitation activities for affected individuals.

Future trends and expectations

The Grey-headed Flying-fox colony in Adelaide has increased steadily since 2010. However, increased numbers are primarily from movements of bats into the area and not from breeding. Until recently (summer 2015−16), little successful breeding has been observed in the Adelaide colony.

Despite the poor breeding success, Adelaide’s colony is expected to continue to increase primarily as a result of immigration from interstate colonies. Some local breeding may also contribute to any colony increase. The colony growth is anticipated to stabilise when food resources become limiting. When this happens, seasonal increases and decreases in food availability are likely to see a corresponding change in the size of Adelaide’s flying fox colony.

For example, one permanent camp in Melbourne can increase from 8000 in winter, to more than 30,000 in summer. It appears reasonable to expect that 20,000-30,000 animals will eventually reside at the Adelaide camp site during times of peak resource availability.

Natural Resources Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges