That first sentence is obviously sarcastic. The second one, not so much.
This floofy flying fox gate-crashed New Caledonia and is hell-bent on staying there. And so it should!
Until it arrived there were no native mammals there, since neither the placental ones nor marsupials were a thing when the islands broke off from Australia.
There’s no trace of its “wing-footed” or Pteropus family earlier than 12,000 years ago either, so Almeida et al.’s best guess is that they evolved sometime in the Miocene (max 23 million years ago), then branched out twice later across the Indo-Pacific. And genetically, our ornate friend may need a branch all its own.
It’s pretty similar to the New Caledonia flying fox (Pteropus vetulus), but that’s more to do with the neighbourhood. One so good, in fact, that the ornate flying fox will put up with almost anything to stay there.
Did you know its roost is also known as a “camp”? Because that’s about to become extremely relevant.
In Sanborn et al.’s 1950 report, Henri Berlioz and Auguste Le Bouhelke had visited the same ornate flying fox camp every year until the war. Then the US military set up their own next door, complete with artillery fire, tanks, even explosions. When Berlioz and Le Bouhelke returned after the war, presumably expecting the worst, they saw “thousands” of flying foxes there. Alive, I should add.
It’s either completely unfazed or stubborn, even when it’s yoinked down or shot for food or cultural reasons.
The Kanak are New Caledonia’s largest indigenous population, and you can literally “bat” someone over the head with one of their traditional clubs because it’s partly made from flying fox skin. Flying fox is also on the menu in many a celebration.
In his wanderings, mammal watcher John Hall even heard rumours of a bat paté, but the unfortunate flapper is usually boiled, skinned and cooked in coconut milk, or marinaded in red wine for soup in the yearly Yam Festival. I feel conflicted, because both sound delicious.
The ornate flying fox currently enjoys CITES II protection, so it can’t be sold commercially, and hunting is only allowed at weekends over 8-10 days in April, with a limit of 5 per hunter. The Yam Festival takes place in March. Can you spot the problem?
That’s not the only celebration that calls for bat meat, though, and the result is a black market and price tag of up to 7,000 CPF Francs (about 50 GBP/USD 70) per bat. What’s even less fun, for everyone, is trying to find the one you shot down in thick undergrowth. So the obvious solution is to shoot more bats. Sigh.
If that wasn’t enough already, the ornate flying fox faces a much cuter enemy. In relation to humans, I mean.
Feral cats are on the rampage too, and in Palmas et al.’s study of their scat, their flying fox of choice was the ornate. Well, at least the long fur probably gave them hair balls.
So far I’ve talked about things happening to the ornate flying fox, but what does it do of its own volition? Aside from never leaving its roost?
Actually that’s not strictly true. It moves north in spring and south in summer and autumn to follow the fruit, but once it’s found a good candlenut tree, ideally on a slope, it will set up camp.
While the noise might be interminable during the day – Sanborn et al. said that was sometimes how they found a camp – it’s a considerable enough neighbour to go foraging at night so you can sleep, setting off just before sundown.
When feeding on fruit like papaya, guava, mango and banana, it tends to chew up all the goodness before spitting out the pulp, so reading that a pet one in Sanborn et al.’s study also ate doughnuts and, God forbid, chewing gum, doesn’t sound quite as terrible as first thought. Mating season is from March to May, and it can pop out a single sprog from the age of two-three, although Mum and Dad tend to keep out of each other’s way when there’s a baby around.
And if you think it’s daft for staying in the same camp despite all the hunting, you should know it’s not daft enough to go to the bathroom while upside down. It hangs from its thumbs for that, ensuring the only showers it gets are the tropical ones. The only other details I found about the ornate flying fox were in a study of penis bones, so let’s not go there.
There is, however, one thing that makes it abandon a camp. Since we’re talking about a lush tropical island with forests, can you guess what it is?
Even a partly dead, utterly-useless-as-shelter tree is still home according to Sanborn et al., and Hall said that although a lit cigarette seemed to bother them, it wasn’t until a nearby tree came down that a camp upped and left. Clearing land for farming, logging, and severe storms egged on by climate change can topple a tree or two, which leaves the ornate flying fox with fewer and fewer places to go, on top of all the hunting.
In that case, is its long face just a coincidence?
Ornate Flying Fox Fact File
Latin: Pteropus ornatus.
You can probably guess the ornatus part, but Pteropus means “wing-footed”, from the Greek pter– for wing and pous for foot.
What? Floofy tropical fruit bat, ranging from a “Mummy brown” to pale yellow.
Where? Forests of New Caledonia, specifically the main island and Lifou and Maré.
First recorded? By J.E. Gray in 1870, as part of a British Museum collection.
How big? The largest adult Revilliod recorded was 25cm / 9.8 inches long, but the average is about 18cm / 7 inches.
Diet? Fruit such as guava, mango, papaya and banana.
Behaviour? It feasts at night and once it’s picked a roost with lots of neighbours, it tends to stay there no matter what. It doesn’t usually breed before the age of two or pop out more than one sprog per year.
Endangered? Classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN in 2019 due to deforestation, illegal hunting, feral cats and the joys of climate change like extra storms.
It looks cute. Does it need my help at all?
While technically protected, enforcement of said protection is a bit lacklustre. I couldn’t find any specific drives for the ornate flying fox, but Flying Fox Conservation looks out for it and other Old World fruit bats worldwide.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Agenbroad, Larry D. No date. “Holocene epoch“. Britannica.com.
Almeida, Francisca C., et al. 2014. “Each flying fox on its own branch: A phylogenetic tree for Pteropus and related genera (Chiroptera: Pteropodidae)“, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 77:83-95.
“Amazing cultures and festivals of New Caledonia“. No date. Kaledonie.com.
Belknap, Daniel F. No date. “Quaternary“. Britannica.com.
Brescia, F. & Oedin, M. 2020. “Pteropus ornatus“. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T18746A22084917.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Flying fox“. Britannica.com.
“Food: catching up with the culinary diversity of the city“. 2019. Kaledonie.com.
Gray, J.E. 1870. “Catalogue of monkeys, lemurs, and fruit-eating bats in the collection of the British Museum”. London: Taylor & Francis.
Hall, John. No date. “New Calendonia“. MammalWatching.com.
Mildenstein, Tammy, et al. 2016. “Exploitation of Bats for Bushmeat and
Medicine“, in Bats in the Anthropocene: Conservation of Bats in a Changing World, pp. 325-375.
“New Caledonia in detail: Eating“. No date. Lonely Planet.
Oedin, Malik. 2019. “Malik Oedin, doctorant en 3ème année de thèse sur les déplacements des espèces de roussettes chassées en Nouvelle-Calédonie“. Agenda. Institut Agronomique néo-calédonienne.
Oedin, Malik, et al. 2019. “Monitoring hunted species of cultural significance: Estimates of trends, population sizes and harvesting rates of flying-fox (Pteropus sp.) in New Caledonia“, PLoS ONE 14(12): e0224466. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224466.
“Ornate flying fox“. No date. Encyclopedia of Life.
Palmas, Pauline, et al. 2017. “Feral cats threaten the outstanding endemic fauna of the New Caledonia biodiversity hotspot“, Biological Conservation 214: 250-259.
“Pteropus“. No date. Merriam-Webster.com.
Quinque, Henry. 2009. “My life with the kagu“. Avicultural Magazine 11(2):49-112.
Revilliod, Pierre. “Les mammifères de la nouvelle-calédonie et les îles Loyalty“, in Nova Caledonia. Forschungen in Neu-Caledonien und auf den Loyalty-Inseln. Recherches scientifiques en Nouvelle-Calédonie et aux îles Loyalty. A. Zoologie. pp. 344-365.
Risch, C., et al. 2015. “Un livre sur les casse-tête et massues kanak“. FranceInfo.
Sanborn, Colin Campbell, and Nicholson, A.J. 1950. “Bats from New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and New Hebrides“, Fieldiana:Zoology 31(36):313-338.