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Night foresters

Grey headed flying foxes play an important role in the long term survival of our forests in south-eastern Australia. Here’s why.

Grey-headed flying-foxes eat fruit, nectar and pollen from hundreds of native and introduced plant species. Many of these species are from subtropical rainforests but flying-foxes also seek out melaleucas, banksias and eucalypts along the east coast of Australia.

Spotted gum is one of their favourite foods. It is an extremely valuable pollen-producing tree and is a common species in the Eurobodalla. On the south coast of NSW, spotted gum is a winter flowering tree. They flower irregularly depending on seasonal conditions, generally every four to seven years. Often the first indication of spotted gums flowering is the rich smell of honey. They have high yields of nectar with a very high sugar content and sometimes it’s possible to smell the honey, particularly in the evening.

As there are fewer insects in winter, spotted gums rely on mammals like flying-foxes for their pollination. These gums also have adaptations - like heavy night time scent - that suggest they rely on night visitors like flying-foxes for pollination.

The highly mobile nature of flying foxes also helps disperse pollen and seed over a large area, which promotes genetic variation in the trees and is particularly important in the highly fragmented landscapes of our modern world. This genetic variation increases the resilience of our forests, by increasing their capacity to withstand or adapt to pressures from the fast-changing human and climate-driven landscape.

Many experts believe that flying-foxes communicate with each other about where the food is, similar to bees. Before they fly out for the evening, there is a lot of chatter and circling of trees. They have a very short digestive tract and food passes through the gut within 12-30 minutes. This is a perfect adaptation for a species with a primarily liquid diet, as it allows them to stay light for flying long distances.

Flying-foxes are crucial for the survival and regeneration of our native forests. It would be well beyond our financial means and physical ability to pollinate forests at the scale they do. The ecological services they provide protect the long term health and biodiversity of our forests.

Council's natural environment webpage has more information about flying foxes in the Eurobodalla.