Ghost bat: the phantom of the Australian night sky

Name(s): Ghost bat (Macroderma gigas)

Size: The largest microbat in Australia with a length of 130mm, a wingspan that can reach up to 600mm, and a weight of 160g.

Diet: Carnivore, feeding on animals including small mammals, amphibians, birds, reptiles and insects.

Habitat/range: Commonly found in isolated populations roosting in caves, rocky crevices, and abandoned mining tunnels. Their range spreads across arid and tropical regions of northern Australia.

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Superpower/fun fact: Ghost bats can wait undetected above unsuspecting prey, before swooping down and capturing them with a swift bite to the neck. However, unlike vampires which prefer to drink the blood, ghost bats prefer to eat the entire thing.

Lindy lumsden ghost bat cropped
Ghost bat. Credit: Lindy Lumsden

While you may have heard of Casper the Friendly Ghost or Nearly-Headless Nick, there is one ghost that you might not have heard of – the mysterious and majestic ghost bat. Like something out of a Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker novel, the ghost bat, a species of false vampire bat, has a prominent leaf nose, elongated ears, and large dark eyes. The ghost bat is Australia’s only carnivorous bat and is also Australia’s largest microbat, boasting a wingspan of up to 60cm. This size, combined with its silvery-grey fur that can appear ghostly in the moonlight, gives this bat its eerie, yet unique name.

Ghost bats are found across northern Australia, living in caves, rocky crevices, and abandoned mining tunnels. They use these refuges because they provide the dark, quiet, and cool environments needed to escape the sun and rest, as well as to breed and raise young. During breeding season, female ghost bats form colonies in large caves and give birth to a single offspring each.

A group of ghost bats hang from the ceiling of a cave
Ghost bats. © duke_n, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

Unlike most Australian bats, which often feed on insects or fruit, ghost bats have a carnivorous diet. They are skilled hunters, foraging in many habitats for small rodents, birds, lizards, and even other bats! They can employ an ambush hunting style – launching down onto prey with a sharp, powerful bite – but they can also scan for prey as they fly using their large eyes and ears to see or hear animals in the area. Ghost bats are also the largest Australian bat to use echolocation. They emit high-frequency sounds that bounce off objects and return, allowing them to navigate in complete darkness.

Ghost bats can travel long distances to hunt and disperse, with examples of bats travelling over 300km in winter and up to 40km in a single night. Adult ghost bats don’t have many predators, with juveniles more likely to be predated by snakes or quolls. However, ghost bats likely compete with owls and other nocturnal predators for food.

Voting for Australian Mammal of the Year 2023 is now open!

More information about the voting process can be found here.

Unfortunately, ghost bat populations are declining. The destruction or disruption of caves due to mining or human disturbance, as well as the loss of important foraging habitat due to large fires or grazing contribute to the decline of the species. In some parts of their range, poisonous cane toads have presumably led to the disappearance of ghost bats in areas where they once existed. Where cattle grazing is present, ghost bats are also often snagged in barbed wire fences when flying low, as they can’t detect the thin wires.

As of now, ghost bats are listed as a vulnerable species, but conservation efforts are underway to protect and preserve these flying mammals, including the creation of artificial roosts and the attachment of metal discs to fences to improve the ghost bat’s chance of avoiding them.

Ghost bats are an efficient predator that would make even the ghostbusters nervous. We should not fear though, as they are harmless to humans, and their unique life history highlights the diversity of Australian mammals. But they are also a species that needs our help, to maintain healthy habitats and populations. They deserve our vote this year!

Ghost bat © isaac clarey some rights reserved cc by nc 850
Ghost bat. © Isaac Clarey, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

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