Bats of the genus Pteropus, belonging to the Megachiroptera sub-order, are the largest bats in the world. They are commonly known as the Fruit Bats or Flying Foxes among other numerous colloquial names. They live in the tropics and subtropics of Australia, Africa, Asia and Oceania including the Indian subcontinent and a number of remote oceanic islands in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The oldest ancestors of the genus Pteropus to be unearthed appear in the fossil record almost exactly as they are today, the only notable differences being early flight adaptations such as a tail for stabilizing. The oldest megachiropteran is dated at around 35 million years ago, but the preceding gap in the fossil record makes their true lineage unknown.
Characteristically, all species of flying foxes only feed on nectar, blossom, pollen, and fruit, which explains their limited tropical distribution. They do not possess echolocation, a feature which helps the other sub-order of bats, the Microbats, locate and catch prey such as insects in mid-air. Instead, smell and eyesight are very well-developed in flying foxes. Feeding ranges can reach up to 40 miles. When it locates food, the flying fox “crashes” into foliage and grabs for it. It may also attempt to catch hold of a branch with its hind feet, then swing upside down — once attached and hanging, the fox draws food to its mouth with one of its hind feet or with the clawed thumbs at the top of its wings.
Many species are threatened today with extinction, and in particular in the Pacific a number of species have died out as a result of over-harvesting for human consumption. In Ghana and the Marianas, flying fox meat is considered a delicacy, which led to a large commercial trade. In 1989 all species of Pteropus were placed on Appendix 2 (threatened) of CITES and at least seven on Appendix 1 (endangered). The subspecies P. h. maris of the Maldives is considered endangered due to limited distribution and excessive culling. The commerce in fruit bats continues either illegally or because of inadequate restrictions. Local farmers may also attack the bats because they feed in their plantations, and in some cultures it is believed their meat can cure asthma. Non-human predators include birds of prey, snakes, and other mammals.
The Spectacled Flying Fox, native to Australia, is threatened by the paralysis tick which carries paralyzing toxins.
On average, P. vampyrus is the largest species, with a wingspan of up to 6 feet (1.8 meter) and weight around 1 kg (2.2 lb.). Other species have impressive widths, such as the Indian flying fox (P. giganteus) which has a 4 foot (1.2 meter) wingspan. Pelage is long and silky with a dense underfur. No tail is present. As the name suggests, the head resembles that of a small fox because of the small ears and large eyes. Females have one pair of mammae located in the chest region. Ears are simple (long and pointed) with the outer margin forming an unbroken ring (a defining characteristic of megabats). Toes have sharp curved claws.