By Georgina Wade
Researchers from Western Sydney University have concluded that about 23,000 spectacled flying foxes, also known as spectacled fruit bats, died in a two-day heatwave in Northern Australia. Temperatures exceeded 42° C on 26 and 27 November, causing the bats to topple from trees into backyards, swimming pools and other locations. As rescuer David White put it, “it was totally depressing”.
And while the numbers already seem astronomical, they may not entirely representative of the devastation as some settlements were not included in the count. In fact, lead researcher Dr. Justin Welbergen believes the deaths could be as high as 30,000 deaths. He also sees the spectacled fruit bats as a “canary in the coal mine for climate change” because the events raise concerns regarding the fate of animals with more secretive and secluded lifestyles.
Experts have long been concerned about the survival of the spectacled flying foxes. Prior to November, government-backed statistics had estimated that only 75,000 spectacled flying foxes resided in Australia.
Mass deaths amongst the flying foxes used to be attributed to cyclones, but regularly occurring heatwaves have become a bigger, more formidable risk. National Flying Fox Programme Chairman, David Wescott, believes this is a major cause for concern, “it’s been a massive population decline for a species that isn’t under a great deal of pressure outside of these weather events,” he explains.
And the heat is not showing any signs of cooling down anytime soon. Just last week, Sydney experienced its hottest day since 1939 with temperatures reaching 47.3° C, resulting in rescuers working around the clock to save a number of koalas, birds and possums.
Nursing possums with burnt paws caused by hot roads and rehydrating birds that have fallen out of the sky are only some of the tasks rescuers are facing. Because, like the spectacled flying foxes, these native animals are particularly vulnerable to heat stress.
Kristie Harris, Office Manager for the New South Wales Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Services (Wires) says responses like this are necessary as animals continue to succumb to heat extremes. “Any time we have any type of heat event, we know we’re going to have a lot of animals in need,” Harris said.