There are two types of bats – microbats and the megabats (including the flying foxes) – which are thought to have evolved separately and are classified as two distinct groups of animals. The micro-bats are small to medium-sized bats (weighing from 3 g to 150 g with wingspans around 25 cm), and mostly eat insects. The ones pictured above are eastern bent-winged bats, clustered together at a roost to stay warm (Image by Bruce Thomson). The flying-foxes are the largest members of the megabat group (weighing up to a kilogram and with wingspans of up to a metre) and mostly eat fruit.

Flying mammals

Bats are the only group of mammals that are capable of powered flight. The scientific name for the group (Order) that bats belong to is Chiroptera. This means 'hand wing' and refers to the specialised adaptations that allow them to fly. Their ‘winged hands’ are made up of greatly extended bones in their forelimbs and fingers covered in a membrane of soft skin. The thumbs of bats are clawed and used for climbing and grooming. Bats wings have evolved to be very efficient in flight with many of the microbats being able to hover, catch prey on the wing, and even fly backwards to avoid danger.

Safety issues

Catching diseases from bats is extremely unlikely. However, it is important to avoid handling bats as Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABL) can be transmitted through untreated bites or scratches from infected bats. There have been three fatalities in Australia from ABL but it is treatable by post-exposure vaccine and anyone bitten or scratched by a bat should seek medical attention immediately.

Flying-foxes can transmit the fatal Hendra virus to horses. Infected horses can also transmit Hendra virus to humans and this has unfortunately resulted in a number of fatalities. There is no evidence that humans can catch Hendra virus directly from flying-foxes.

Members of the public should not handle bats

If you find a sick, injured or orphaned bat, do not touch it. Contact your local wildlife care organisation or the RSPCA Qld. They will put you in contact with a licensed and fully vaccinated wildlife rescuer who is trained to handle and care for wildlife.

If you have been bitten or scratched by a flying fox, wash the wound gently but thoroughly with soap and water for at least five minutes. Do not scrub the wound. Apply an antiseptic and cover the wound. You should seek immediate medical advice from your doctor or local hospital.