Species of the Week: Pemba flying fox

Each Wednesday, One Earth’s “Species of the Week” series highlights a relatively unknown and fascinating species to showcase the beauty, diversity, and remarkable characteristics of our shared planet Earth.

One-quarter of the world’s mammals are bats and they range everywhere on the planet except the arctic regions. Off the coast of East Africa, on the tropical island of Pemba, is one specific species of bat known for its massive size, charming face, and comeback story — the Pemba flying fox. With a wingspan up to 5 feet 3 inches, the Pemba flying fox is part of the genus of megabats, which are the largest bats in the world. Their tawny fur that glistens orange in the sun, black ears, and face that resembles a fox is where they derive their name. In 1989, there were only a few individual bats in this species left in the wild. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, their numbers have soared with an astounding 22,000 bats recorded in 2008. 

The Pemba flying fox is only found on their namesakes’ island and they live in the forest trees and among mangroves in large groups. Colonies of the Pemba flying fox roost during the day and emerge at dusk to forage for fruit with their most popular meals consisting of figs and mangoes. Leaves, flowers, and nectar are also consumed and the seeds that go through their system and the pollen that sticks to their fur helps to disperse plant life across the island. Contrary to most bat species, Pemba flying foxes have great eyesight. Their eyes are large and positioned on the front of their heads which gives them binocular vision. Rather than for the use of echolocation, the chirps of all flying fox species are thought to be for each other as they are highly social. 

Pemba flying foxes also rely heavily on their sense of smell. With large olfactory bulbs to process scents, they smell to locate food, find their young, and for mating. Offspring are born between June and August and become independent several months later. 

The decline of the Pemba flying foxes in the 1980s coincided with the popularity of the shotgun. Pemba flying foxes were considered a delicacy and previous hunting methods were more sustainable. Their remarkable recovery is also due to human action, Tanzania’s Department of Forestry paired with the conservation organization Fauna & Flora International (FFI) to create protected habitats and raise awareness. Today, the island polls with nearly 100 percent of locals expressing support for their continued conservation. “This amazing resurgence proves that conservation can work, even in the most dire-seeming situations, if the right actions are taken at the right moment,” FFI said in a statement. 

Pemba flying foxes are the flagship species of the Northern Swahili Coastal Forests ecoregion, located in the East African Coastal Forests bioregion (AT07).