Significance to humans

All over their range, flying foxes have been considered a delicacy for centuries, and this is especially so for the Chamorro people of Guam and the nearby Northern Marianas Islands. Traditionally, the animal (fur, wings, and innards included) is boiled in coconut milk and eaten in its entirety, usually during ceremonial or otherwise special occasions. Samoan islanders use branches bound to the end of long poles to snag the animal and pull it to the ground, while aboriginal Australians have also been known to use specialized methods to hunt these mammals for food.

Flying foxes have occasionally been considered beneficial for medical use. In the 1970s, Indian flying foxes (P. giganteus) in Pakistan were harvested for their fat, which was thought to be a cure for rheumatism. Still, by far the most notable contribution is that of pollination and seed dispersal. As a whole, Pteropus plays an integral role in the survival of 300 species of plants across its range, about half of which are regularly used by humans for nourishment, materials, and medicine.

The most serious threat to flying fox populations is probably deforestation. The removal of primary forest not only limits habitat in the most basic sense, but it also encourages additional loss—the logging processes used in these areas tend to inhibit growth of new canopy, and the elimination of large sections of forest leaves the remaining habitat even more vulnerable to the tropical storms that frequently strike island environments. The mass conversion of mangrove swamps into shrimp farms has also had a devastating effect on certain species, most notably the Pohnpei flying fox (P. molossinus).

Some Pteropus species are also losing ground due to illegal wildlife trade, human use for food, and extermination—flying foxes are often considered by orchard growers to be destructive agricultural pests. Populations can sometimes be disturbed by predation as well. An example is the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis), which was introduced on Guam in the 1940s and has had a significant impact on bat populations since. Other enemies include predatory birds, such as owls and falcons.

A spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus) hangs from a small branch. (Photo by David Hosking/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

1. Island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus); 2. Tongan flying fox (Pteropus tonganus); 3. Livingstone's fruit bat (Pteropus livingstonii); 4. Madagascar flying fox (Pteropus rufus); 5. Marianas fruit bat (Pteropus mariannus); 6. Blyth's flying fox (Pteropus melanotus). (Illustration by Marguette Dongvillo)

1. Indian flying fox (Pteropus giganteus); 2. Black flying fox (Pteropus alecto); 3. Spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus); 4. Rodricensis flying fox (Pteropus rodricensis); 5. Little red flying fox (Pteropus scapulatus); 6. Big-eared flying fox (Pteropus macrotis). (Illustration by Marguette Dongvillo)

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