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Myth, truth and the bat

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bats have long been a subject of fascination.

Dracula movies, followed by a long list of films with vampire themes were probably the only knowledge a lot of people in Fiji have of bats. They inched out a perception of evil that seems to have stuck to bats. There are six species of native bats in Fiji. Two are in the endangered category. One, the Fiji flying fox (sometimes incorrectly called the Monkey-faced fruit

bat), according to environmentalist Dick Watling, is only known to live on the island of Taveuni where it is highly endangered.

Fiji bats have been hard done by. If they are not at the receiving end of curious kids trying to bring them down with rocks and sticks, they are slowly been forced out of their natural habitat by the advent of development. Surveys have shown a dramatic decline over the last 20 years of the small sheath-tailed bat which is also highly endangered. It has disappeared from many caves around the country where it was previously found, leaving experts baffled.

Robin-Ann Thoms lives a quiet life at Nasese in the Suva peninsula. She lives in a house overlooking the Suva harbour with the island of Beqa looming out a little to the north-west.

It is the same house her grandfather, old man Riemenschneider built over a hundred years ago.

The house, once known as 'Le Repose' (resting place), has not changed much.

The view is the same, except for a few trees that jut out on the other side of the Queen Elizabeth Drive, blocking out part of the harbour from the front porch of the house. It sits on a little slope behind trees and other foliage. The architecture is of another era.

A 'No tresspass' sign on an old wooden gate serves as a reminder of her family's need for privacy.

Ms Thoms was the fourth Miss Hibiscus, in 1959, after Liebling Hoeflinch-Marlow, Filimaina Koto-Delailomaloma and Mary Ah Koy-Nelson.

While she prefers to stay away from the public eye these days, Ms Thoms is protective of what she considers her bats.

Bats (the Polynesian flying fox /Pteropus tonganus / or beka) first sought refuge on a tree in her compound some time in 1981. They have never left. "I first noticed them then," she remembers.

"There were just a few of them. I didn't have the heart to get rid of them and they kept coming back, and the number rose over the years.

"At first they were so noisy. But now I'm so used to the noise, it doesn't bother me at all.

"But the bats do tell me if there's something wrong, especially when kids start throwing sticks at them from the roadside. The bats start screaming and get all upset. They usually leave about 6pm to feed and return around 4am.

"They usually sleep during the day, only waking up to fly out to feed again in the evening.

Ms Thoms was told by an expert on bats, Kate Hubbard, fondly known as the batwoman, who spent days studying her bats, there was a nursery on one of her trees where some bats looked after the young while the rest flew out to look for food.

"I've noticed an interesting thing over the years. I think they've gone quieter. Or maybe it's because I've just gotten used to the noise they make," she laughs.

"I love them, which is why I'm so protective of them. I think they're extremely intelligent." The bats, she has noticed, calm down and go silent every time she walks out to the main gate. It is as if there is an unwritten law that no bat must bother her or splash their droppings on her.

"What I like about this is that the sound is natural and it is like living in a forest. Hopefully I can keep them with me for as long as possible," she says. "The last time we tried to chop down some branches, the bats got so upset. They made so much noise. They're so sensitive. I felt for them."

She has lost count of the number of bats who live on her trees.

"But one evening, I counted more than 500 of them leaving to look for food," she says.

Mr Watling believes the fruit bats or flying foxes are essential links in Fiji's forest eco-systems playing an important role in the dispersal of seeds and pollination of some trees and flowers.

Four of the six bats in Fiji are larger 'fruit bats' and two are small 'insectivorous bats'.

Of the four fruit bats, three are large flying foxes (the beka) and one is a smaller 'blossom bat' which has a long tail like a rat. Of the flying foxes, one the Polynesian flying fox is wide ranging in the Pacific. The Samoan flying fox is found in Samoa and Fiji and the Fiji flying fox is only known to live on Taveuni.

In his book, Mai Veikau, tales of Fijian wildlife, published in 1986, Mr Watling mentioned 65 species of flying fox distributed from Madagascar across southern and South East Asia to Australia and the islands of the west Pacific. The family includes the largest of living bats with wing spans of up to 1.5m.

Fruit bats, he says, are processors first, and consumers second.

'Mouthfuls of fruit are vigorously chewed and ground. All the pulp and juice is swallowed, then the seeds and fibrous material spat on.

'The Polynesian flying fox camps are noisy with several hundreds or more individuals resting or attempting to rest on the tree tops. The trees soon lose all their leaves and the bats are exposed to the sun all day. It is hot up there and the beka have devised methods of keeping cool. Their wings are highly vascularised and they are often seen fanning one or both wings to cool the blood. If this is not sufficient they have another trick-they urinate on the wings and let it evaporate.'

Like Mr Watling, Ms Thoms believes bats have an important role to play in Fiji's eco-system.

"I think it's really important that people are taught to protect bats," she says.

"They are foresters. They feed, and trees and other vegetation grow from their droppings."

She knows her trees are like a sanctuary for bats in the Suva peninsula.

As the knot tightens on the dwindling habitat of the bats, Ms Thoms' residence is like a beacon of hope for the beka. Long flagged with misconceptions, unfairly and cruelly treated, hundreds of bats can still look forward to a resting place every morning.

The vampire bat

Myths and legends have portrayed bats as blood-sucking demons. Vampire bats really do exist, but only three species in Central and South America.

The vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) have a wingspan of about eight inches and a body about the size of an adult's thumb. If not for their diet, people would not pay much attention to these small bats. Vampire bats feed on the blood of large birds, cattle, horses, and pigs. However, they do not suck the blood of their "victims".

Using their sharp teeth, the bats make tiny cuts in the skin of a sleeping animal.

The bats' saliva contains a chemical that keeps the blood from clotting. The bats then lap up the blood that oozes from the wound. Another chemical in their saliva numbs the animal's skin and keeps them from waking up.

A vampire bat finds its prey with smell, and sound.

They fly about one metre above the ground. Then they use special heat sensors in their noses to find veins that are close to the skin.

Scientists have discovered that vampire bat saliva is better at keeping blood from clotting than any known medicine. Vampire bats may one day help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Vampire bats are one of the few bat species that are considered a pest. In Latin America, cattle raising is a growing business, and sleeping cattle attract vampire bats. In ranching areas, control programs have been started.

However, millions of beneficial bats are destroyed by people who mistake them for vampires.

While they are larger than most of the bats of the temperate zones of the world, vampire bats are much smaller than gigantic flying foxes.

Horror movie depictions of vampire bats often use flying foxes as models because larger bats are easier to photograph.

This contributes to the public perception of vampire bats as large, terrifying animals. But animals that feed on blood, whether they are insects, leeches or bats, tend to be small because blood is a precious commodity and hard to obtain in large amounts.

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