Flying fox research with Project Rufus
Imagine waking up before sunrise, in a tent in the littoral forests of Madagascar, preparing for an early morning trip to count some of the largest bats in the world. The journey consists of walking over hilltops with breathtaking views into the valleys below, gazing over the serene early-morning estuary, reflecting the pink hues of sunrise, with hazy mountain peaks breaking up the horizon. The voyage continues on pirogues, boats fashioned from hollowed-out palms, paddling through mangroves and past towering forests. The stillness of the morning and the hushed voices will only be broken by the noise of the Madagascan flying fox roost when you arrive, as they constantly chatter to one another. When in flight, their wings sound like flapping bed sheets, and they cast shadows in the shape of prehistoric pterosaurs.
Pteropus rufus, commonly known as the fruit bat or flying fox, is a keystone species, meaning they are vital for seed dispersal, as intact seeds pass through their digestive tract and get deposited in their own nutritious pile of bat poop, or scientifically, ‘guano’. Project Rufus aims to protect the roost site for these bats, as well as collecting samples of their faeces, to determine the extent of their dispersal abilities, further emphasizing their need for protection. The project started in 2015 after our Conservation Research team (SCRP) published a population count of 150 flying foxes in the area. The bi-monthly count and collection is often our volunteers’ favourite activity to get their (gloved) hands, quite literally, stuck into whilst enjoying the wonderful sights and sounds of the bats.
The flying fox roost is located in Sainte Luce’s forest fragment ‘S6’. This is a community-use forest, giving local people access to the forest in order to collect wood, used predominately for firewood and construction. In 2016 a dina, or local law, was ratified around the bat roost, declaring an exclusion zone for people and offering a degree of protection for bats and their habitat. This was an important step, both for the flying foxes and Project Rufus. However, this dina is local in nature, and has yet to be ratified with other nearby communities in order to fully protect the animals and their forest.
Upon arrival at the roost the SCRP team is split into two, counting the roost from both sides, with some of each team counting roosting bats and others counting those that are flying over. Guano is scooped from hanging tarpaulins, after which the messy task of picking intact seeds out of the guano commences. One of the target species for the project is fihamy, a fig that is the absolute favourite meal of the flying fox. With seeds the size of pinheads, weighing around 0.1 grams each, I will let you imagine the fun of sifting through the guano to find them!
Watch: Part of the colony of Pteropus rufus in Sainte Luce.
When it comes to field research, you always come across challenges and difficulties, and we would be lying if we said there wasn’t for this project! Flying foxes are easily disturbed, and sometimes when we reach the roost all of the bats are in-flight. Have you ever tried to count three hundred flying foxes flying overhead in circles?
As Project Rufus moves into its next phase, we can see a bright future for the flying foxes in Sainte Luce. Recently our population counts have equaled consistent sightings of approximately 350 bats and with breeding season just around the corner, we hope the colony will continue to grow. And never deterred, our SCRP team will continue holding our noses as we pick minute seeds out of gloopy, gelatinous guano, distracting ourselves with memories of the beautiful journey and these incredible animals.