The exceptional heat wave that overtook Sydney on Jan. 7 wreaked havoc on wildlife, especially the flying fox (AKA fruit bat) species, whose brains were “fried” when they were unable to escape the heat.
On Sunday in Sydney, temperatures hit 117 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest it’s been since 1939. Hundreds of flying fox bats died for want of shelter from the heat.
This is the opposite of the problem the other side of the world faced as North America and Canada dealt with bitterly cold temperatures and the bomb cyclone followed by the polar vortex. It was so cold in Florida that iguanas froze and fell to the ground, The Washington Post reported.
Flying foxes adapted to the typical warm climate in Australia, but they cannot regulate their body temperature in outside temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, according to bat ecologist Micaela Jemison.
“It was unbelievable. I saw a lot of dead bats on the ground and others were close to the ground and dying,” volunteer Cate Ryan told the Guardian. “I have never seen anything like it before.”
It was 47.6C (117.7F) in Penrith today, 43.7C (111F) at my place near Sydney airport! These flying foxes were trying to take refuge from the scorcher in Sydney by hanging from branches I could touch. #summer #australia #sydney #flyingfox pic.twitter.com/Os9xALeIwE
— Martin Walsh (@martinwalsh) January 7, 2018
“Anytime we have any type of heat event, we know we’re going to have a lot of animals in need,” Kristie Harris, animal specialist, told BBC.
Animals Australia speaks on behalf of the bats’ importance on their website:
“Flying foxes are intelligent and remarkable. These unique animals help regenerate our forests and keep ecosystems healthy through pollination and seed dispersal. They are a migratory and nomadic ‘keystone’ species; meaning a species that many other species of plants and animals rely upon for their survival and wellbeing.”
The site goes on to say that “climate change, land clearing, and other human-caused ecological pressures” threaten flying fox bats.
More than 30,000 flying fox bats died in Australia during heat waves between 1994 and 2008, according to Jemison. “This is of great concern to scientists not only due to the increased risk of these ‘die off’ events, but also for the long term impact it will have on teh recovery of several of these already threatened species.”
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that as many as 100,000 bats across the state of Queensland died in a heat wave in 2014.
Politics of Death
The tragedy struck a political tone as activists brought attention to habitat concerns. A charity organization in the Sydney suburb of Campbelltown, home to colonies of flying foxes, posted to Facebook— excerpts of which broke hearts and called for political action fueled by the emotional impact of the deaths:
“Please spare a thought for everyone who helped and attended today and for the many bats who sadly didn’t make it as well as the many mothers who returned calling for their babies who sadly were not calling back.”
The post tagged Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton to “you need to start protecting wildlife and their habitats ASAP the world has seen this story.”
Australia’s not all doom and gloom. Thanks to the compassionate efforts of groups and individuals, many animals are saved during heat waves. The public’s awareness of such events can bring about support for endangered species and what can be done to appropriately protect them.