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Flying foxes in Egmore

R. Sujatha

A colony of fruit-eating bats has settled down in Egmore

— PHOTO: S. THANTHONI

Denizen of the city: A colony of flying foxes (fruit eating bats) has made the green space behind Egmore Government Museum its home.

CHENNAI: If you thought Chennai had become a noisy and polluted concrete jungle, revise your opinion. For, it is home to some creatures you would generally associate with the forest.

Many of us may have seen the tiny insect-eating variety of bats at night. A surprise denizen is the larger fruit-eating bat. They are brown, furry creatures with huge, clear brown eyes and small sharp teeth.

In the heart of the city in Egmore, behind the government museum, a colony of flying foxes, a fruit-eating variety of bats, have roosted for many years. There are about 1,000 bats currently on the 50-foot-tall trees in the green space.

Museum zoologist J.R. Asokan says, “I have been working here since 1982, and until 10 years ago there were no flying foxes. But, some years ago, they were noticed. There used to be thousands a few years ago. In the past six months their population has come down.” He believes some of them have segregated and joined another group.

The evolutionary link of bats can be traced to fossil records dating back 35 million years. Of the nearly 1,100 species of bats in the world, about 175 are said to be fruit-eating varieties.

The flying foxes (Pteropus giganteus) are anatomically not much different from their ancestors. Their body is a foot long and the wing spread of an adult is about four feet. The species is found only in the tropics, in climates favourable for fruit cultivation. The flying fox is the most common species in the Indian subcontinent, except in the Himalayas.

The variety has very few predators. The adult mammals, with a life span of 20 years, have only one offspring at a time.

Flying foxes eat at least 10 times their weight, feeding on nectar, flowers, pollen and fruit. The species has well-developed eyes, bestowing the mammals with good night-time vision. Unlike other bat species, flying foxes do not use sonar sounds echolocation but smell their food. The species migrates up to 40 km in search of food.

“There are fruit trees in the city. So there is plenty to feed on. We have custard apple, sapota and guava trees. These bats will return at around 7 a.m. and leave home to hunt for food after dark,” Mr. Asokan says. “Bats suck out the juice and spit the pulp. You can see more of these creatures during the mango season.”

The green space in the museum is far from prying human eyes and the noise of vehicular traffic on the busy Pantheon Road. The sounds from Don Bosco School behind the museum is no threat to these creatures. Mr. Asokan says in countries like the United States, these bats have become a tourist attraction.

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