Madagascan flying fox (Pteropus rufus)

Also known as: Madagascar flying-fox, Madagascar fruit bat
French: Renard Volant
Spanish: Zorro Volador De Madagascar
GenusPteropus (1)
SizeWingspan: 100 – 125 cm (2)
Length: 23.5 – 27 cm (2)
Weight500 – 750 g (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The Madagascan flying fox is the largest of Madagascar’s three endemic species of fruit bat (4) (5). The common name derives from the long pointed muzzle and ears (4) that give the face a distinctive, ‘fox-like’ appearance (5). The body is brown with darker tones on the back and lighter, golden to reddish-brown tones on the chest and shoulders. The face, crown and nape are also light and more yellowish in colour, and the wings are slate-grey to black (2). As with almost all species of Pteropodidae, there is no obvious tail (2) (5).

Endemic to Madagascar (1), it occurs throughout most of the island, although it is rather scarce in the central highlands and in the arid south (2).

During the day the Madagascan flying fox is usually found roosting in native forest vegetation, but occasionally also uses Eucalyptus trees. Roost sites are rarely in intact forest and are usually found in small, and often degraded, patches of forest. These include riverside, mangrove and sacred forests. Foraging occurs in both primary and secondary native forest, as well as in human-modified landscapes dominated by agriculture (2).

During the day, the Madagascan flying fox roosts in large, noisy groups of up to several thousand individuals in the canopy of favoured roost trees. The noise of the colony intensifies if disturbed, and when a potential predator is sighted, such as the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), alarm calls can cause the whole colony to take to flight. The body temperature is regulated by hanging with wings outstretched to absorb heat when it is cool, and licking the wings whilst hanging them outstretched to provide evaporative cooling when warm (2).

Leaving the roost at dusk to forage, these bats may fly up to 34 kilometres to find food (6). Several ‘scouts’ fly ahead of the main group to locate suitable fruiting trees, navigating using their excellent vision rather than by echolocation. Fruit juice dominates the diet, although nectar, pollen and leaf matter are also eaten (2) (6) (7). These bats are therefore important agents in pollination and seed dispersal of endemic Malagasy plants (2) (4) (6) (8).

During the mating season, (April and May), dominant male bats hold territories on the roost tree which they patrol to exclude other males. A collection of female bats will roost within their territory and mating takes place hanging upside-down from tree branches (4). Females give birth in October, normally to a single pup, but very occasionally to twins (2) (5).

As recently as 60 years ago the Madagascan flying fox was widely abundant (9), but loss of habitat due to the rapid rate of deforestation, combined with increasing hunting pressure, has dramatically reduced numbers to approximately 300,000 individuals (4).

Habitat loss impacts the Madagascan flying fox in two ways. Firstly, many roost sites are abandoned because the favoured roosting trees are damaged or destroyed by people. The bats appear to show a strong preference for certain types of roosting areas, and as many traditional sites are used for decades, the loss of roosting habitat is a major threat to the survival of the species (7). Secondly, habitat loss decreases the availability of suitable foraging habitat.

The Madagascan flying fox is not listed as a protected species under Malagasy law (4). It can be legally hunted between May and September but this legislation is difficult to enforce, and so in reality, bats are hunted and eaten by people throughout the year. Hunting occurs both at roosting and foraging sites and is most destructive at the former. There is real concern that the number of animals hunted exceeds the number of young surviving to maturity. Hunting is predominantly for food (subsistence and commercial) but sport hunting occurs in some areas (10).

Conflict with people is reported from areas where the bats feed on fruits such as lychees and mangoes. The former are a major export crop from Madagascar and the Madagascan flying fox is frequently implicated as a pest in orchards (10).

Habitat loss and hunting have resulted in a highly uncertain future for the Madagascan flying fox and justify its classification as Vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (1).

The Madagascan flying fox has received much less attention than other species endemic to Madagascar (for example lemurs) from conservation groups. Unless it becomes a protected species its conservation will always be an uphill struggle. Foremost in the drive to save the species should be to raise awareness about the plight and importance of the Madagascar flying fox, as well as conservation initiatives based around roost sites. There are only a few roost sites within Madagascar’s existing protected area system (4) although established sites have been reported from Masoala, Mananara-Nord, and Kirindy-Mitea National Parks. There is also a roost site in Berenty Private Reserve (6).

Other types of protected area offer hope for the Madagascan flying fox. Many colonies are protected because they roost in sacred forests (for example cemeteries), that prohibit felling trees or hunting. Thus, although these bats are not directly protected in much of their range, the promotion of traditional beliefs and the management of locally sacred areas could prove beneficial to the bats. Also, a large number of new parks are in the process of being created in Madagascar and many of these will include Madagascan flying fox roosts. There are also a number of community projects underway to find local solutions to roost conservation (7) (11).

For further information on the Madagascan flying fox see:

Authenticated (30/01/2008) by Richard K. B. Jenkins, Madagasikara Voakajy.

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)