ARTISTS IN ISOLATION | 2020
A life in trees and other mysteries
Bairnsdale, April 2020
After the summer bushfires in East Gippsland, I just stopped taking photos. I didn’t know how to process what had happened and I still don’t. Lately I have been photographing the Grey-headed flying fox colony on the river in Bairnsdale. Every year I think I will photograph everything that goes on there in a year. But I can't and every day it’s different. So I'm just here performing non-essential services and every night they fly out, but I have to stay.
Flying foxes as a species are way older than we are, and probably smarter. They were here when this country was Gondwanaland. When we weren't walking upright, flying foxes looked pretty much the way they do today.
When I see the images, I am fascinated by the visual relationship between the flying foxes and the trees. It's not surprising given that flying foxes grow trees and tell an amazing story of inter-species co-evolution with eucalypts, (the world’s largest flowering plants). Most eucalypts only truly open their flowers at night, to attract the best pollinator. Daytime birds and bees are just left to mop up, as most flowers are dead by morning. A colony of flying foxes is often described as an engine of biodiversity.
Right now this colony is big, noisy and exciting. It’s mating season and the flying foxes are here for the blossom. It's a good sign that lots of flying foxes are here, it means the forest is flowering again after the drought. Flying foxes are the gardeners of the night and while they take backyard fruit when hungry, what fuels their epic night-time journeys is the energy and protein rich pollen and nectar of native trees and shrubs with over 100 native plants relying on them for effective pollination.
Flying foxes migrations are one of the last great mammal migrations left in the world. The Grey-headed flying fox range is from Adelaide to Brisbane. I don't know if they can fly north this winter, maybe there is not enough blossom left in unburnt forest to fuel their journey up the coast. The next few months will tell. They are the only long range pollinators, carrying heavy pollen loads across fractured and damaged eco-systems and are our best hope for repairing fire damaged east coast eucalypt forests. We need flying foxes now more than ever.
'The world is now in the throes of a COVID-19 pandemic. Although the origin and cause of the outbreak have still not been identified, right from the beginning the media was rife with the usual inflammatory statements speculating bats to be the main suspects.
There is still a lack of conclusive evidence tracing the disease back to bats – the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus has not even been detected in bats yet, and even if it is, this doesn’t prove a direct transmission route from bats to humans, as other factors (and possibly other animals) may have been involved in causing the outbreak.
Bats were not recorded or reported to be at the Wuhan market when the outbreak started. Yet the supposed ‘bat origin’ of this so-called “bat-borne virus” was quickly propagated and accepted as fact amongst the general public. This led to further irresponsible speculations quickly surfacing about the outbreak being caused by the consumption of “bat soup”—fake news that has now been debunked.
To this day, bats have not been proven to be the cause of the outbreak. Yet the psychological link between bats and COVID-19 has already been created and solidified in many people’s minds. Virologists, disease ecologists, public health officials and science communicators need to realise the impact their words have on the public psyche, and also on the wellbeing and conservation of bats. Public speculation about the link between bats and diseases is dangerous and unhelpful—particularly when the supporting evidence is still weak.
When bats continue to be framed so negatively in disease research and its media coverage, this results in unnecessary scaremongering that does nothing to help address the actual outbreak, but does instead stoke fear and hatred of bats—an already maligned animal group that continues to suffer from an undeserved negative public image.'1
by Merlin Tuttle, leading bat researcher founder of Bat Conservation International for 30 years, director of Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation and research fellow in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin.