Safari Park: Bats!

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been hyping the opening of the new bat house at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park since last spring. Well, after a few delays, the new bat house is open for business and I was able to check it out last weekend. Read on for my thoughts.

The brand new bat house is in the center of Nairobi Village (mustard yellow on your Safari Park map), right next to the petting kraal. It was originally announced to open last July, was pushed back to the fall and finally opened in late December 2011.

The clever new sign and entrance to the bat house.

The first thing that struck me upon approaching the new exhibit was the signage. Previous announcements had heralded the forthcoming attraction as a future home for flying foxes, including the recent grand opening press release. Instead, what I saw was a giant sign for bats. My theory: the park originally hoped ‘flying foxes’ would pique interest (“There are foxes that can fly?!”) and avoid the creepy-crawly connotation of ‘bats’, but did a 180˚ and decided ‘bats’ would be more concise and draw morbid curiosity.

It was a good decision. The sign was an attention-grabber, as were the two giant bat statues people put their heads in and take photos (is there a specific name for these?). I can’t help but feel like a giant ‘flying foxes’ sign in its place would garner a lot of shoulder shrugs.

The 500-sqaure-foot bat house is a self-contained exhibit. Enter on the left side, exit on the right side. Bats are in the house, you are in the house. There is a wire screen between the animals and the people, rest assured. It is kept humid to mimic the bats’ tropical conditions.

Photo opportunities abound outside the recently opened bat house at the Safari Park.

The inhabitants are Rodrigues fruit bats (Pteropus rodricensis), one of the most critically endangered bat species on the planet. It is native to tiny Rodrigues Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 500 miles due east of Madagascar. At 12-inches tall, the Rodrigues fruit bat is one of the largest species of bats. There are 13 bats on display in the bat house, including five males and eight females, according to the zoo.

Fun fact: There are around 1,240 species of bats, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all mammal species.

Upon first entering the bat house, I must confess I was underwhelmed. I suppose I expected a flurry of activity, akin the to cave-like experience at the Jacksonville Zoo’s excellent Range of the Jaguar exhibit. Apparently, I hadn’t done my research. The Jax Zoo’s smaller Seba’s short-tailed bats (Carollia perspicillata) were the type of swooping, swirling bats that gave Bruce Wayne nightmares. The Safari Park’s Rodrigues bats are more stoic, shall we say. No flying, just a lot of sleeping and hanging upside down.

Rodrigues fruit bats hang from the branches of their new exhibit.

Or so it seemed at first. Spend some time in there and you will begin to observe the large bats doing some fascinating things. Those bats that aren’t sleeping make constant trips to the fruit bowls by using their hooked thumbs to amble along the tree branches. Once they collect a piece of fruit, they eat the soft flesh or just squeeze out the juice and drop the rest of the fruit to the ground. You will also see the bats stretch out their 3-foot wingspan, giving you a good look at the bone structure that comprises the wing like an elongated human hand. If you are really patient, you can hear the bats communicating with each other through a series of high-pitched chirps.

Fun fact: The Rodrigues fruit bat is a member of the Megachiroptera (or megabat) suborder, which do not use ecolocation to navigate and locate food. Megabats rely on their keen sense of smell to find fruit.

A glimpse inside the bat house at the critically endangered Rodrigues fruit bats.

Having only been once to the newly opened exhibit, I can’t tell you whether the bats are fed throughout the day or if I was lucky enough to see them right after feeding. I’m also not yet sure how their behavior changes with the time of day, being nocturnal animals. What I can tell you for now is to spend a few minutes in the bat house observing. I encountered two types of visitors in the exhibit: people that said, “Ew gross, let’s get out of here,” and left immediately, and people that said, “They are creepy, but cool,” after watching them for awhile.

And yes, those were direct quotes.

As ever, follow me on Twitter (@AZooVisited) for blog updates and occasional Live Tweeting of zoo excursions, and like me on Facebook to display your discerning taste.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Janie on January 5, 2012 at 11:01 am

    My grandchildren and I visited the new exhibit Dec. 19. I think it may have just opened. There wasn’t much information available and it was dark and humid and hard to observe the bats. They were still calling them “Flying Foxes”. My 8 year old grandson wanted his picture taken behind the bat statues but he was too short to show his face through the hole until he precariously stood on his little sister’s stroller. They need some kind of stools back there to accommodate their shorter visitors. We shall return to give it another try because I think more has been added since our “underwhelming” initial experience. They are fascinating mammals.

    Reply

    • I’d suggest just hanging out (no pun intended) in there for a bit. It’s one of those exhibits where there is a lot more going on than you first realize. There is also usually an adjustment period with animals that are newly on display. Many exhibits improve even more with age.

      And thanks for reading!

      Reply

  2. Posted by Vivian on January 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    I can’t wait to finally become a member and visit both parks! Definitely have to check out the bats.

    Reply

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