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Life of the ‘Flying Fox:’ How the World’s Largest Bat Species Came to Be

“Flying fox” bats are huge, with wingspans up to 5 feet, and can travel as far as 55 miles in one night. Of all the types of megabats, the flying fox family contains the most species and the largest geographical breadth. There are 65 species of flying foxes living in tropical and subtropical areas around the world.

Researchers from the lab of Professor David Lohman (City College, The Graduate Center) set out to discover how such diversity came to be, publishing their results in the Journal of Biogeography. Ph.D. graduate Susan Tsang and Macaulay Honors College graduate Y-Lan Nguyen, who also worked as the Lohman lab manager, were also authors on the paper. ­

Flying fox species are common throughout the islands of the Indo-Australian Archipelago (IAA), a series of islands that acts as a natural laboratory for the study of evolution and biogeography, Tsang said. Besides revealing information about the bats, the research could also have implications for understanding the biogeographic history of other animals in the area.

The international team of researchers from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Japan as well as from CUNY set out for the IAA to observe the bats and collect tissue samples, then performed genetic analysis to trace the bats’ origins.

The flying fox’s ability to fly great distances and thus move from island to island has been essential to its history, the researchers found. They determined that the genus originated in Wallacea, a group of islands within the IAA. From there, it’s likely that small groups of bats dispersed to other islands and established themselves in places where they didn’t have too much competition. Isolated from the bigger group, a small population would have developed characteristics, over generations, that made it different enough to be considered a separate species.

The bats’ flying prowess also make them important seed dispersers in these isolated islands. Despite their ecological importance, Tsang said in a blog post for the journal, they remain understudied. Future work will investigate their impact on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.