Name: Spectacled flying-fox (Pteropus conspicillatus conspicillatus)
Size: Length: up to 24cm, wingspan up to 1m. Weight: up to 1kg.
Diet: Fruits of rainforests and open forests, nectar of many flowers.
Habitat/range: Restricted to the north-east tropical coast of the Wet Tropics region from Mackay to Iron Range, centred on Cairns and up to the Atherton Tablelands.
Conservation status: Endangered
Superpower: Can fly 112km in a night to forage and spread 60,000 seeds a night, up to 80km from the parent tree.
Across the darkening skies at dusk, in the wet tropics of far north Queensland, lucky observers will see thousands of spectacled flying-foxes leaving their daytime roosts to forage for the fruits and flowers of the tropical forests. The flying-foxes will return early the next morning to feed their young, many of which have been crèched overnight.
Spectacled flying-foxes are social animals and wonderful mothers. After a six-month gestation, they give birth to just one pup a year between October and December, then nurture the pup for another six. Their bond is established through touch – grooming, hugging and feeding. Pups instinctively know how to grab the nipple and hang on for dear life as mum flies out with her baby underwing. Older pups are left overnight in a crèche tree with other pups of the same age until they are independent.
These daily and nightly activities have been one of the rich rewards to residents and Indigenous people of the wet tropics. The spectacled flying-fox is sometimes known as a rainforest specialist because it feeds on rainforest fruits and flowers, but it also uses eucalypt forests, mangrove and paperbark forests, and most of the roosts they use lie outside rainforests.
Their foraging activities have caused problems for fruit growers – particularly when it comes to lychees, mangoes and papaya – when natural food sources are in short supply. Until the early 2000s they were killed in large numbers by electrocution and shooting. After their numbers crashed from more than 300,000 to fewer than 80,000, they have been protected and permits to kill have been revoked.
The spectacled flying-fox is considered a ‘keystone species’ because they pollinate and distribute the seeds of many species across large distances. Tracking collars have shown them to be flying 25-100km a night. Their pollination and seed distribution services are so important for maintaining healthy forests that if you take them away the ecosystem collapses – just as a stone arch will topple if the weight-bearing keystone is removed.
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Spectacled flying-foxes hold particular significance for the more than 30 First Nations peoples who live within its range, from Iron Range in the north of Cape York Peninsula, all the way down to Mackay on the central Queensland coast and up the Atherton Tablelands. They are known as manu-wudhaga in the Guugu Yimidhirr language, and by other names by the other 30 or so First Nations peoples. Their cultural, spiritual and totemic significance to Indigenous people is strong, and they are concerned about their decline.
The spectacled flying-fox was thought to be declining in the late 1990s; detailed counting has shown it to be in real trouble. Although the causes of the population decline are not fully understood, habitat destruction and climate change have been identified as major threats. An extreme heat event along the Cairns coast in November 2018 killed 23,000 spectacled flying-foxes, estimated to be a third of the population. The species was then uplisted to Endangered in 2019 and a recovery team formed in 2020 to help prioritise research and activities to benefit the species. The team plans to model how the heat was distributed to locate the best sites for habitat restoration. Hundreds of spectacled flying-foxes come into care each year because of tick paralysis, being orphaned, and due to entanglement on barbed wire fences, but also because they’ve been hit by cars or electrocuted on power lines.
Significant efforts to help the Spectacled Flying-fox recover to its previous population levels have begun, but lots more work needs to be done and funds are needed.