Livingstone’s flying fox (Pteropus livingstonii)

Also known as: Comoro black fruit bat, Livingstone’s bat
Synonyms: Pteropus livingstonei
Spanish: Zorro Volador De Livingston
GenusPteropus (1)
SizeLength: 30 cm (2)
Average wingspan: 1.4 m (2)
Weight500 – 800 g (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

Livingstone’s flying fox is one of the largest bats in existence, and also has the regrettable distinction of being among the most threatened (2). It has dark brown to black fur, with rusty- or ginger-tipped hairs across the shoulders and in the groin area (2). While they are bats, flying foxes, (also known as Old World fruit bats), are named after a different animal because their elongated muzzles give them a distinctly foxy appearance (2). The orange-brown eyes of Livingstone’s flying fox are large, reflecting this bat’s well-developed vision (4). This species does not use echolocation, but exhibits typical mammalian hearing, and thus has simple, rounded ears (4) (5).

Occurs on the islands of Anjouan and Moheli in the Union of the Comoros, an island nation in the western Indian Ocean (6).

Livingstone’s flying fox inhabits forests, above 200 metres on Moheli and above 500 metres on Anjouan. Its roost sites are generally found on southeast facing slopes that receive morning sun and are shaded from noon through late afternoon, in valleys with rivers running though (7).

Livingstone’s flying fox is predominantly nocturnal, but unlike most bats it is also active during the late afternoon, when it flies from roost sites to feeding sites where forest trees are fruiting. The flying fox locates fruit with its well-developed vision and sense of smell (2), and feeds throughout the night, resting intermittently (5). These flying foxes feed primarily on fruit juices; they squeeze pieces of fruit pulp in their mouths, swallow the juice and then spit out the pulp and seeds (6). Their diet is predominantly fruit from native tree species, though it varies seasonally (8). They also feed on the flowers of native plants, to obtain the nectar, and occasionally leaves are consumed too (5). Because of this fruit and flower diet, Livingstone’s flying fox plays an important role as a forest pollinator and seed dispersal agent (7).

Livingstone’s flying foxes roost in tall trees in medium to large, often noisy, colonies (2) (6), in which there is a defined social structure, based on dominance. Male flying foxes mark a territory by rubbing branches with the strong musky scent produced by glands in the neck and shoulders, and a dominant male may also use this to mark females that share his roosting or feeding territory, in an attempt to deter other males from mating with her (2).

Livingstone’s flying foxes breed seasonally, generally at the beginning of the rainy season, between August and October, when food is plentiful (2). Heavily pregnant females cluster in groups away from the males, and give birth the ‘right’ way up, by clinging onto a branch with their thumbs. The pups can usually cling to their mother straight after birth, and then climb to one of the mother’s nipples, where they feed while tucked safely under her wing. At about three weeks of age, the young are left in a ‘crèche’ at night while the mother flies off to feed (2).

Once abundant in the vast forests of Anjouan and Moheli, extensive deforestation has led to the worryingly small populations of Livingstone’s flying fox in existence today (9).

Native forests of the Comoros Islands continue to decline rapidly, at a rate of 5.6 percent per year (7), as forests are under-planted with, or cleared for fruit, coconuts, manioc, maize, peas, sweet potatoes and cloves (5) (9). Cyclones pose another serious threat; major cyclones in 1983 and 1984 were believed to have a significant impact on the Moheli population (9). It is believed that without urgent action, these incredible bats may be extinct within 25 or 50 years (5).

A conservation action plan for Old World Fruit Bats, which includes Livingstone’s flying fox, was published in 1992 by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which outlined a number of measures required for the survival of this species. One recommendation was the establishment of a captive breeding programme (9), which was quickly initiated. In 1992, five male and one female Livingstone’s flying foxes were imported to the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (now the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust). This captive population increased in 1993 with the addition of five more males and another female, and five further females were added in 1995 (10). The programme has apparently been successful, with (as of 2002) 42 individuals existing in captivity in three colonies at Jersey and Bristol zoos (11). In 2007, a new comprehensive plan, called the Conservation Action Plan for Livingstone’s Flying Fox was developed for the species and its habitat. This plan identified a conservation strategy focusing on actions such as habitat protection, forest management, environmental education, population monitoring, captive breeding, and ecological research. Initial steps are now underway to implement this plan (12).

In the wild, Livingstone’s flying fox has the support of two voluntary non-governmental organisations, Action Comores International and Action Comores Anjouan, whose primary aims are the conservation of this critically endangered species. This is achieved through surveys and monitoring, ecological research, protecting the flying fox and its habitat, and educating local communities on the importance of the bats and the forests they inhabit (11). Such measures are not only greatly beneficial for Livingstone’s flying foxes, but address environmental problems in the Comores and emphasize the importance of fruit bats to forests and people worldwide (11)

For further information on Livingstone’s flying fox:

Authenticated (09/04/08) by Dr Elise Granek Assistant Professor, Environmental Sciences and Management, Portland State University, and Brent Sewall, Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, University of California.

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2014)