Every little bat helps: Rare Rod bat babies caught on video

August 30, 2016 - 10:32am

Zoo photographer gets amazing mother-pup video of endangered Rodrigues fruit bats

Two Rodrigues flying foxes are being raised at the Oregon Zoo's "bat cave" this summer, adding to the growing population of a bat species once considered the most imperiled on the planet.

Closer in size to a flying prairie dog — and in appearance to a flying Ewok — this critically endangered species is native only to Rodrigues, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean about 900 miles east of Madagascar. The bat plays an important ecological role on the island, where few other pollinators or seed dispersers exist.

"Every birth is significant for these bats."

—Laura Weiner, senior keeper

Keepers say the two new arrivals at the zoo are not only "adorable," but a testament to one of the most inspiring conservation stories in history: living proof of the impact people can have — both positive and negative — on wildlife and species conservation.

"Every birth is significant for these bats," said Laura Weiner, senior keeper for the zoo's Africa section. "Forty years ago, the Rodrigues flying fox was perilously close to extinction. The fact that they are here today shows what a difference people can make in helping wildlife."

By the 1970s, much of the bats' forest habitat had been cleared, and the species was on the brink extinction. After a cyclone hit the island in 1979, only 70 individuals remained, making the Rodrigues flying fox the rarest bat in the world.

The bats found a champion in English naturalist Gerald Durrell, who translocated some survivors to form the nucleus of a breeding colony aimed at repopulating the species. Today, the Rodrigues flying fox population has increased to around 20,000 thanks to 40 years of conservation activity, including the Rodrigues Environmental Educator Project launched by the Philadelphia Zoo in 1998.

The Oregon Zoo began housing "Rods" — as they're often called in zoological circles — in 1994, and has raised more than 40 pups since then, periodically sending bats to other zoos as part of the Rodrigues flying fox Species Survival Plan. SSPs are Association of Zoos and Aquariums programs that ensure species that are threatened or endangered in the wild have sustainable populations in zoos and aquariums. These bats will ensure genetic diversity in the zoo population.

Visitors can look for the new arrivals at the zoo's "bat cave," home to two species of Old World fruit bat. But they'll have to be very patient, according to Weiner.

"Rods are big and fuzzy, and most of the time they keep their babies tucked up underneath a wing," she said. "Occasionally, you'll see a foot across the mom's belly — and sometimes the mom will open her wings to clean the baby. Usually, you have to sit there quite a while to get a glimpse — but when you do, they're adorable."

If "adorable" isn't the first word that springs to mind when you think of bats, a new video by Oregon Zoo photographer Michael Durham might turn your concept of cute upside-down. The video shows a Rodrigues fruit bat and her month-old baby engaged in an upside-down snuggle, while another young Rod — nearly 2 months old and already much larger) ventures out, upside-down, on his own: bit.ly/RodBatBaby.

Durham, one of the world's foremost wild bat photographers, has braved everything from quicksand to underground caves to obtain some of the most stunning images of bats in flight anywhere. Until now, though, he's never managed clear video of a mother "Rod bat" and her pup.