Large bats around the world are declining, often due to being hunted for their meat. Makira, one of the Solomon Islands, is no exception, although fruit bats here are not only sought for their meat – their teeth are used as currency.
No one has ever studied the impacts of this on giant fruit bat populations before, so Tyrone Lavery of The Field Museum and John Fasi of the University of Queensland decided to investigate.
They interviewed 197 people on Makira Island to find out about their hunting habits and published their findings in the conservation journal Oryx.
"Doing this study was fun – people think you are crazy to be asking about bats," said Fasi in a statement. "They see how abundant the bats are in the wild and have no knowledge that they are threatened."
There are two types of giant fruit bat – or flying foxes – on Makira: the large Pacific flying fox (Pteropus tonganus) and the smaller Makira flying fox (Pteropus cognatus).
"Island flying foxes are a diverse group of bats, and they're nearly all in trouble. Many species are endangered or extinct from some islands," said Lavery.
Through their study, the researchers discovered that the Pacific flying fox is targeted more by hunters. This is because its larger size – it has 90-centimeter (3-foot) wingspan – provides more meat and larger teeth that can have holes drilled in them for use in jewelry as well as currency.
The bats’ teeth play an important cultural role in traditional events like weddings, where they are used as payment. However, the researchers found that younger generations believed the tooth currency will die out, as modern currencies slowly take over. This will not affect the high meat demand, though, which provides an important food source for the island’s residents.
The researchers note the importance of working with local people to conserve the bats. "Conservation work must always get the support of local communities if it is to work," said Fasi.
"The practice of hunting bats shouldn't necessarily be stopped, it needs to be managed sustainably. The continuing use of traditional currency is something to be celebrated," added Lavery.
There was greater hunting pressure on the bats in areas where they were rarer, so getting hunters to avoid low-pressure areas with more bats could help protect them.
So why are these bats so important?
When you think of a pollinator, you probably imagine a butterfly or a bee, but in fact, bats play a crucial role in pollinating forest trees and plants.
"The bats are hugely important for the health of Makira's whole ecosystem. The Pacific islands are exposed to hurricanes, which can destroy forests – fruit bats spread seeds that help forests regenerate," explained Lavery.
And if that isn’t enough to convince you, just look at this little guy eating a grape.