Project Pteropus

Lead Researcher: Sheema

Pteropus hypomelanus
Pteropus hypomelanus
Old World fruit bats (Pteropodidae) such as flying foxes (Pteropus spp., Acerodon spp.) are important ecosystem service providers, pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds over long distances. However, instead of protecting these incredible flying mammals, humans are threatening their survival through hunting and persecution (see here for further information on these issues and how Rimba has been involved). These bats are often viewed negatively, and are not charismatic flagship species, so there is little motivation to conserve them. The risk of zoonotic disease transmission presents further complications, as most research efforts in Peninsular Malaysia have focused disproportionately on this aspect and how it relates to public health, contributing further to negative perceptions of bats whilst neglecting the conservation ecology of this highly endangered animal group.

Project Pteropus was set up to address this gap in research and conservation, as understanding bat ecosystem services and conflict situations with humans is the first crucial step towards developing effective conservation solutions. There is a particularly urgent need for this in Malaysia, where the country’s two flying fox species are on the brink of extirpation, yet are still classified as low conservation priorities on the IUCN Red List simply because they are considered to be globally common and widespread. This underscores the importance of localised conservation action to address country-specific flying fox declines. As such, we created this project to focus specifically on the conservation ecology of flying foxes and other pteropodid bats instead of virology or zoonotic disease research.

Call for collaborations! The first phase of this project has wrapped up now, as Sheema concluded her PhD in Paris in November 2016. We hope to secure further funding to continue the work and extend the project further into the long term. We are keen to collaborate with others in order to work on the following aspects:

  1. Peninsula-wide Pteropus survey to identify populations and roost localities, particularly to conduct a population census of P. hypomelanus for which no baseline data currently exist.
  2. Ecosystem services of flying foxes, particularly their role in pollination of fruit trees such as durian, including economic valuation, and engagement with the commercial durian industry. But also studies on seed dispersal, movement ecology, and mangrove ecosystems to further elucidate interactions between flying foxes, plants, and people.
  3. Pollination services of nectarivorous bats (e.g. Eonycteris spelaea) as a means to push for the conservation of habitats such as limestone karsts (crossover with Project Limestone; this can also extend to ecosystem services of insectivorous cave bats e.g. Chaerophon spp., Scotophilus kuhlii).
  4. Mitigating conflict between fruit bats and fruit growers, particularly to develop, test, and implement mitigation methods to avoid/reduce fruit damage caused by bats.
  5. Public outreach programs, including the development of awareness materials on bat ecosystem services. Targeted at the general public, but also with special focus on local communities who coexist with flying foxes, and/or interact with them.
  6. Creating a reference library for bat food plants in Malaysia, comprising: herbarium samples, pollen, seeds, and DNA sequences.

Although we do not conduct research on virology or zoonoses, we welcome collaborations that employ a genuinely holistic, One Health approach to disease ecology, prioritising the welfare of wild animals and their habitats alongside human health, and incorporating a strong pro-conservation message that strives to avoid demonising or creating unnecessary fear of bats.