The bat project, which has caused so much interest in Skukuza, has already shown that these little creatures play a major role in the life history of the fig tree.
Skukuza’s fruit bats have been part of an ongoing study by Professors John Winkelmann and Frank Bonaccorso from the biology department of the Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, USA for a few years now.
These intrepid professors and their team of students and volunteers visited Skukuza again recently for more bat tracking. In order to see where these elusive bats disappear to every night, they fit tiny radio collars to them.
These are light weight collars and do not hinder the bats’ movements in any way.
Epauletted fruit bats are a common sight hanging under the eaves of the Skukuza Camp shop and the lapa outside the Skukuza Deli, and are a great tourist attraction.
These bats form part of a study that entails looking at their movements and feeding behaviour. Luckily these local bats are easy to find during the day as they roost hanging upside down in the shade.
The radio collars transmit a signal that can be detected by a receiver and every evening after sunset, the researchers can determine where the bats are going and which trees they are feeding on. Fitting the radio collar is a delicate business. First the bats are captured in a mist net that is held out below where they roost. As the bats drop down to fly out into the night, they become entangled in the fine net.
Once they are out of the net, the bat is put into a cotton bag and taken to the veterinary lab for the collar to be fitted. Before the collar is fitted, all the vital statistics of the bat are recorded including the body weight. The bat is kept calm by feeding it a sweet sugar solution.
Once the collar is fitted and secure, the bat is returned to the roosting site and released to fly free and feed on its favourite figs. The collar is only on for a few days while the researchers track its movements and then it is removed.
Previous research on these endearing bats has shown that they distribute thousands of figs seeds from the fruit they feed on, confirming that they play a key role in the life history of fig trees.
The bat trackers last visited Skukuza last year. Previous work by the bat researchers has seen some of the fruit bats fitted with unique bead necklaces to discover where individual bats roost, especially in the winter months when fruit is scarce.
By Michele Hofmeyr