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  • Flying Fox:Kin, Keystone, Kontaminant
  • Deborah Bird Rose (bio)
    Translated by Yumiko Tsumura

A portrait of Australian flying fox life in the Anthropocene illuminates startlingly familiar stories. These animals are participants in most of the major catastrophic events, as well as contestations about rescue, of contemporary life on Earth: warfare, man-made mass death, famine, urbanisation, emerging diseases, climate change, biosecurity, conservation, and local/international NGO aid. They are endangered, and are involved in all four of the major factors causing extinctions: habitat loss, overexploitation, introduced species, and extinction cascades. My account of flying foxes in Australia rests on the understanding of species articulated both vigorously and eloquently by Donna Haraway (2008:42): we and others are entangled in knots of species who are co-shaping each other in layers of reciprocating complexity. I seek to engage both the living, warm-blooded beings whose lives are threatened, and the excruciatingly dynamic deathscape that is surrounding them/us. Positioned, like much of life on Earth today, in zones of increasing conflict and terror, the lives and deaths of flying foxes tell us that in the Anthropocene there is no way out of entanglements within multispecies communities. Rather than seeking to erect more impenetrable barriers against others, relational ethics for living and dying in the Anthropocene urge us to assume ever greater mutuality and accountability as intra-dependent members of the suffering family of life on Earth.

Sociability, Flying Fox Style—Megachiroptera

Australian Megachiroptera scrabbled into the English imagination in June 1770 when Captain Cook beached his ship Endeavour at the mouth of a river in Queensland for repairs. One of his men returned to camp, telling of an animal he had seen: "It was as black as the devil and had wings; indeed I took it for the devil, or I might easily have catched it for it crawled very slowly through the grass" (quoted in Ratcliffe 1948:6). We might imagine that something was wrong with the little guy, as flying foxes can't walk and wouldn't normally be crawling in the grass. One wonders if the seaman had thrown stones at it, but perhaps it is equally possible to imagine that the flying fox, never having seen a white man before, was reeling with shock. [End Page 175] They are alert creatures, extremely aware of what is going on around them. Pamela Conder, a recent student of flying foxes, writes of her time sitting quietly inside a flying fox enclosure in a wildlife sanctuary, observing their actions and interactions. She says that the flying foxes quickly became accustomed to her, regarding her, apparently, as an innocuous part of the background. However, she states:

I was surprised when I walked into the cage late one hot morning to see the bats panic and flee in all directions from my approach. Then I realised what was different—I was wearing a large sun hat. I left the enclosure, let the bats settle and returned sans hat. Not so much as an eyebrow was raised. Before long, however, the hat became accepted as part of me for the rest of that summer.

(Conder 1994:55)

The term chiroptera means "hand winged." There are two suborders: mega and micro. Worldwide, Megachiroptera include 166 species of flying foxes (also known as fruit bats) and blossom bats. Microchiroptera include 759 species. The two suborders are quite different, size being only part of the difference. Microchiroptera navigate by echolocation (animal sonar); they are small and feed mainly on insects, but there also are blood-eating vampire bats, fish-eating bats, and other carnivorous bats. In contrast, Megachiroptera all feed on plants. They navigate principally by sight, and many of them are large. In Australia, the largest male flying foxes weigh about one kilogram (2.2 pounds) and have wingspans of up to 1.5 metres (nearly 5 feet) (Hall and Richards 2000:1–3).

There is no way of knowing the population of flying foxes prior to British settlement, but certainly the numbers would have been in the thousands of millions. Four main species of flying foxes make up the Australian contingent: black flying fox (Pteropus alecto), grey-headed flying fox (P. poliocephalus), little red...


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pp. 175-190
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