High-hanging fruit bats

Birds are not the only warm-bodied flying objects. A sizable colony of Gambian Epauletted Fruit Bats, Epomophorus gambianus, lived in our lodge’s dining room roof. Before you shudder, here is our dining room: three 40-foot tall open thatched pavilions each large enough to take a dining table for 12:

The bats snoozed all day upside down in the rafters:

Most were at the very top, just visible above the windows, but a few roosted a little lower-down, so I could get closeups:

They are fruit (and nectar) bats, so they had no interest in tangling in our hair in a hunt for insects, let alone sucking our blood. They really look very much like small dogs:

Of course, they have wings instead of front legs, with little hands they use to cling on to the rafters.

Both sexes have white patches in front of their ears, and the males have tufted scent glands on their shoulders, not visible in my photos, which give them their “epaulette” name. The males have a wingspan of up to 20 inches. The females are a little smaller.

Unlike most bats, they do not use echo-location to find their food, but instead they depend on sight and smell. They have a complex social hierarchy (see below for more details) and can live as long as 28 years in captivity.

At dusk we would see them flying out to forage, and at our pre-dawn tea-and-biscuit rendezvous they would be returning for a good day’s sleep.

This short video gives you a closer look:

They’re found through a swathe of West and Central Africa, and are not endangered, though habitat loss and pesticides are a potential threat.

Wikipedia has a good description of their social organization, if you are curious for more:

The social behavior within fruit-bat camps does not stop at individual family groups. The whole colony is organized, with separate peripheral groups of immatures and non-breeding adults. The epauletted fruit bats travel in small groups of six to twenty bats. When the fruit bats are in flight, they remain together in long processions. The leaders often change, yet they retain the same direction of flight. (Mickleburgh)

They frequently sniff at each other’s scent glands to establish personal recognition. Which represents high levels of social organization. When one is shot down, they show great concern and gather round swooping low to inspect it; a sign of affinity rather than totally independent behaviour. They roost during the day in mango trees and bamboo reeds or other trees. The Gambian epauletted fruit bats hang upside down alone or in groups up to twenty. The species’ droppings support whole ecosystems of unique organisms, including bacteria useful in detoxifying wastes, and producing gasohol. This species feeds on nectar and fruits of many West African trees, presumably acting as pollinator and/or seed disperser. Some flowering trees depend on the bats for pollination. (Fenton)

The pack moves during sunset in large flocks from resting areas to feeding areas. To avoid predators, the bats will carry fruit away from the tree before eating. Over several nights bats may carry more than a ton of seeds from a single wild fig tree, dramatically increasing the number of seedlings that will survive in new locations. The fruit bats spend over half their lives roosting in various places. (Wilson)

On the outskirts of the camp, non-territorial males act as guards. They are alert to the slightest disturbance. They perform a visual inspection and either give a loud alarm signal, or remain still, keeping an eye open.[8]

One thought on “High-hanging fruit bats”

  1. That was very interesting…your close-ups are nice…I really like bats. Why do they build the thatched roofs like that? I would think that’s difficult to accomplish….climbing to attach thatch. So the bats fly in under the bottom of the roof?


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