The discovery of the Bulmer’s fruit bat is a tale of mystery, mistakes and stubbornness. It is a story that shows the importance of sheer luck in conservation, and of the persistence that must accompany it. And, perhaps most of all, it shows the importance of not letting your dog near the dinner table!
Unearthing the bat – Sue Bulmer and her fossil
The story takes place in Papua New Guinea in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, one of the most naturally and culturally diverse countries in the world. It has over 800 languages and 1,000 species of birds and mammals, including, as we now know, the Bulmer’s fruit bat.
The Bulmer’s fruit bat was first discovered in 1960, but it wasn’t caught or trapped as you might expect. Instead, it was dug up by an archaeologist, working in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea, named Sue Bulmer. Sue was excavating caves in the Wahgi Valley and sifting through 10,000 years worth of leftover human meals to find out more about those who had once made the caves their home. Along with finding out that the hungry inhabitants of the caves weren’t afraid of going up against wild pigs and marsupial wolves, she also found that they ate plenty of fruit bats. Until, that is, about 10,000 years ago when the bats suddenly stopped appearing in the fossil record.
Curious and hoping to find some answers, she sent some of her specimens on to James Menzies, a specialist in New Guinean mammals at the University of Papua New Guinea. James got to work sorting through the bat remains, many of which were understandably incomplete or deformed after being cooked and then buried for thousands of years. He was still just able to identify most of the specimens as D. moluccensis, a fruit bat still common in the area, but one bat puzzled him – it had a strangely formed jaw and its wings were in an unusual place on its back. With great excitement James realised that this was, in fact, an entirely new species of bat! He named it the Aproteles bulmerae, the Bulmer’s fruit bat, in honour of its discoverer.
Nobody had ever found this bat before and so the entire world assumed it was extinct, existing only as a fossil.
The second discovery – the great dog heist
And so for the next 14 years the Bulmer’s fruit bat was consigned to extinction, considered to have been dead for the past 10,000 years.
Until, that is, in 1974 when an anthropologist named David Hyndman came on the scene. David had come to the area to learn about the Wopkaimin, one of the local peoples, and it was only because they invited him on a bat-hunting trip that he became a part of the Bulmer’s fruit bat’s story at all.
Their hunt took David on a two-day trek through dense forested mountains to Luplupwintem, a cave 2,300m above sea level and about as deep as the Eiffel Tower. As David peered over the edge into the black, a colony of bats suddenly erupted out of the opening, streaming by him in a flurry of black and brown. The Wopkaimin shot dozens down with their arrows, donating a few to David to satisfy his curiosity.
They returned to camp with their bat booty, and later that night David noticed that those specimens weren’t like the usual fruit bats; their skull and jaw looked distinctly different. Turning his back for just a moment to grab his camera, one of the group’s dogs, in a manner familiar to many a hapless dog owner, snatched one of the precious bats off the table and gleefully bounded off with its new toy.
And so began one of the most important games of tug-of-war in the history of conservation. After a chase round the tents, presumably providing much entertainment to those watching, he was able to retrieve several body parts of the bat which he quickly sent to an expert before they could meet with any more mishaps.
This expert, as luck would have it, was the same James Menzies that Sue Bulmer had sent her fossils to over a decade before. James immediately recognized, despite some dog bite marks, that this bat was the same species of bat that Sue had found fossilised in a cave – the Bulmer’s fruit bat was still alive!
Lost and found
On returning to Luplupwintem a few years later, in 1977, however, David was greeted by an empty cave – the majestic swirl of bats had turned into a vacant cavern, with only two bats flying out on his approach. Not yet ready to despair, James himself made the trek up to the cave in 1985, but he too came back without any Bulmer’s fruit bats.
Luckily one other person was about to get involved: the paleontologist Tim Flannery. Tim was fascinated by tales of the elusive Bulmer’s fruit bat, and for nearly a decade he and local guides searched all over the mountains for the Bulmer’s fruit bat. After yet another fruit bat-less trip in 1990, however, he was forced to conclude that the Bulmer’s fruit bat was gone.
But they underestimated just how hardy a bat they were dealing with – and luckily Tim was too persistent to have given up. After finding fresh evidence that the Bulmer’s fruit bat had been seen alive as recently as 1984, Tim went back to the area one last time in 1992 and his persistence paid off. On reaching Luplupwintem he and his team counted over one hundred bats fly past them and into the open sky.
The Bulmer’s fruit bat lived once more!
The future of the Bulmer’s fruit bat
Nobody is certain just why the numbers of the Bulmer’s fruit bat dropped so drastically 10,000 years ago, or why the flock disappeared in Luplupwintem during the 1970s. One commonly accepted theory however, is that a new nearby mine disrupted the bats and the introduction of a cash economy provided local people with money for shotgun ammunition – there are reports of hunters with guns killing many hundreds of bats in a single hunting expedition.
But David is optimistic for the future of this bat, believing that more undiscovered colonies of the Bulmer’s fruit bat may lie deep in the forests of Papua New Guinea, protected by the isolated caves they find so cozy. There are currently no explicit conservation efforts, but we can hope that this bat that has withstood 10,000 years of hunting, gradual climate change and deforestation might survive for many more years to come.
- Flannery, TF. 1994. The Rediscovery of Bulmer's Fruit Bat http://www.batcon.org/index.php/resources/media-education/bats-magazine/bat_article/626
- IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2017. Aproteles bulmerae. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/1933/0
- Edge of Existence Programme. 2016. Bulmer's Fruit Bat (Aproteles bulmerae) http://www.edgeofexistence.org/mammals/species_info.php?id=33