Australian heatwave: bats falling out of trees as temperatures near 50C

Ecologist warns that bats are the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for effects of climate change on wildlife

A grey-headed flying-fox bat flying over Sydney's Botanical Gardens in summer 2005
(Image credit: Greg Wood/AFP/Getty)

Ecologists are warning that recent bouts of extreme heat in Australia risk decimating the country’s bat population.

In South Australia, temperatures have been “running 10 to 14 degrees above average” since the start of the week, says Adelaide Now. On Tuesday, the mercury peaked at 49C in the northern town of Tarcoola.

As well as causing discomfort for the state’s human residents, the intense heat is once again taking its toll on the bat population.

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“Large colonies” have been seen falling to the ground after succumbing to heat stress in the Adelaide’s Botanic Park, home to around 17,000 bats, the ABC reports.

The state’s health department has warned residents not to touch “heat-stressed bats and pups”, which can carry dangerous diseases including the Australian bat lyssavirus, which causes rabies.

Ecologist Jason Van Weenen said that bats struggle to cope with temperatures above 40C, especially when young, and said the heatwave meant a “high likelihood of a significant number of pups dying over summer”.

Last November’s heatwave in Queensland had a devastating impact on the nocturnal mammals.

Researchers now believe that at least 23,000 spectacled fruit bats died - around one-third of the total population - over just two days in and around Cairns, where temperatures passed 42C.

Some locals were “forced to leave their homes due to the smell from thousands of rotting carcasses”, the ABC reports.

Over the same period, around 10,000 black flying foxes are thought to have succumbed to heat - and bat-watchers say that climate change predictions indicate that the situation is likely to worsen.

“Extreme heat events are increasing in frequency, also in terms of intensity and duration,” said Dr Justin Welbergen, president of the Australasian Bat Society and lead researcher into the effects of the November heatwave.

He added that bat species who roost in urban areas were only the most visible example of a more widespread impact on wildlife, and should be seen as “the canary in the coal mine for climate change”.

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