Golden-tipped bat: gilded masters of camouflage living rent free in the nests of oblivious birds

The golden-tipped bat is 2023’s Australian Mammal of the Year! Read more about it here.

Name(s): Golden-tipped bat (Phoniscus papuensis), meaning ‘Little Murderer’ in Latin (Phonos – murderer; iskos – suffix for little).

Size: Body length: An average person’s thumb. Weight: A whopping 7g.

Diet: Orb-weaving spiders plucked unsuspectingly from within their webs.

Habitat/range: Steamy tropical jungles and vine thickets of Papua New Guinea and North Queensland, and all down the east coast inhabiting relictual Gondwanan rainforest, and sheltered gullies in wet sclerophyll forest to just beyond the Victorian border.

Conservation status: Vulnerable.

Superpower: Gilded masters of camouflage, living rent free in the nests of oblivious birds just like millennials who won’t leave home.

A close up photo of a golden-tipped bat
Golden-tipped bat (Phoniscus papuensis). Credit: George Madani

Weighing somewhere between a 10 and 20 cent coin, golden-tipped bats are fully functional, intelligent, volant mammals. They employ complex sonar, cover several kilometres every night and can probably do long division too. Think about it. You can easily fit several of these aureate flocculating night-worshippers into the palm of your hand with room to spare, and at a staggering and intimidating fighting weight of only 7 grams they are out there every night hustling for their dinner while burning calories faster than a contestant on Alone. A house mouse at best survives a year in the wild, golden-tipped bats can live for at least seven!

Three golden-tipped bats in a gloved hand.
Three golden-tipped bats in hand. Credit: George Madani

With the lowest wing loading (meaning very broad wings) of any Australian bat species, these glittering woollen socks can patrol the night in a leisurely manner in quest of their juicy, squishy, fanged meals. Golden-tipped bats have a highly specialised diet, eating only orb-weaving spiders! With pronounced radar shaped ears, they emit ultra-high frequency calls – your beloved pooch wouldn’t hear them coming – as they navigate through the cluttered forested understorey. Their echolocation is so precise they can differentiate spiders sitting in their sticky, stranded, silky spun webs from the rest of the entangled forest. Once located, it’s munch munch munch as the bat tears the hapless spider from its web and with their tiny little fang like incisors (which is why their Latin name means little murderer) they pierce the body of the spider before sucking all the good spidery juices out. Gnarly!

When these gilded night flappers are done for the night, they visit someone else’s home. Just like Goldilocks their bed must be the right size and the right amount of comfy. Walk along any sheltered creek gully in a rainforest and you’ll likely happen across these dangling, moss-entangled Airbnb’s. Golden-tipped bats roost in the bottom of suspended bird nests that have been diligently constructed by yellow-throated scrubwrens and brown gerygones (up to 12 bats have been found happily squishing in amongst each other in one roost). These clever bats excise a chamber below the nest where they happily freeload whilst the builders go about their busy day oblivious to their surreptitious tenants. To add to the deception, golden-tipped bats come in deluxe, yes you guessed it, golden-tipped fur which helps them to blend into the wiry fibres that make up the nest.

A colony of golden-tipped bats roosting
A Goldilocks colony of Phoniscus papuensis roosting. Credit: Brad Law

While an idyllic rainforest stream with an all-you-can-pluck smorgasbord of spiders to indulge in sounds pretty good, arguably Australia’s coolest bat has hit upon hard times. The cataclysmic fires of 2019/2020 burnt rainforest that quite simply is not supposed to burn. The bird nests that our bats are so dependent on were consumed by the same flames. Devilishly handsome and modest researchers assessed the impact of these devastating fires on combustible golden-tipped bats and found that they declined by up to 70% where fires raged most severely. Historical habitat loss and fragmentation also hasn’t helped their cause. Whilst utterly magnificent, homeless golden-tipped bats aren’t built for long distance flying, and so recolonisation and repopulation of their forested homes isn’t easy. So desperate were researchers to help them out, mops were put out as artificial roosts for them in the areas affected by fire. It didn’t work.

Next time you’re plonked on the couch after dinner, eroding your brain with moving picture nonsense, spare a thought for our tiny-weighted flying dish scourers. Think of all the nocturnal adventures they must have; how oblivious they are to their own predicament, and how indifferent they’d be to winning Australian Mammal of the Year.

Golden-tipped bat roost. Credit: video by Lachlan Hall and George Madani

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