Durians Depend On Endangered Fruit Bats

An international team of scientists has discovered that the endangered fruit bats of Southeast Asia serve as pollinators of the durian tree.

AsianScientist (Oct. 11, 2017) – Fruit bats play an important part in the pollination of the durian tree, according to research by an international team of scientists. Their findings are published in the Journal of Ecology and Evolution.

The tropical durian fruit, with its spiky skin and distinctive odor, is highly prized throughout Malaysia and Thailand. A lucrative industry has arisen around this ubiquitous icon of Southeast Asian culture, with durian sales generating millions of US dollars in local and international trade.

In this study, researchers used camera traps to collect video evidence showing the fruit bat Pteropus hypomelanus, also known as the island flying fox, pollinating durian flowers, leading to the production of healthy durian fruit. The video footage was captured on Tioman Island by a team of researchers led by Dr. Sheema Abdul Aziz as part of her PhD research at the France’s Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in collaboration with the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

“These are very important findings because they shed more light on the crucial ecosystem services provided by flying foxes,” said Sheema. “Previously it was known that the smaller, nectar-feeding bats are pollinators for durian, but many people believed that flying foxes were too large and destructive to play such a role. Our study shows the opposite: that these giant fruit bats are actually very effective in pollinating durian trees.”

Unfortunately, the island flying fox is already classified as ‘endangered’ on Malaysia’s National Red List. Severely threatened by hunting and deforestation, these animals are often sold and eaten as exotic meat due to an unsubstantiated belief that consuming them can help cure asthma and other respiratory problems. Some of these flying foxes are even misunderstood as agricultural pests and killed.

The decline in flying fox numbers could have negative implications on Southeast Asia’s durian supply, and their disappearance could have severe repercussions for tropical ecosystems in general.

“The durian is a fascinating plant that. With its flowers pollinated by bats and its seeds dispersed by large animals like elephants, it beautifully exemplifies the importance of plant and animal interactions,” said Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus who is one of the co-authors of the study.

“The durian fruit is particularly famous for its pungent smell and unique taste, adored by most people in Southeast Asia and so often misunderstood by westerners. We hope this study brings attention to the urgency of conserving flying foxes in Southeast Asia,” he added.

The article can be found at: Aziz et al. (2017) Pollination by the Locally Endangered Island Flying Fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) Enhances Fruit Production of the Economically Important Durian (Durio zibethinus).


Source: University of Nottingham; Photo: RIMBA.

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