Bats Are Boiling Alive in Australia's Heat Wave

Thousands could die from the summer heat, wildlife conservation groups predict.

While the Northern Hemisphere has been visited by a low-hanging polar vortex, blizzards, and wintry cyclones, the Southern Hemisphere is feeling some very different extremes.

Australia is experiencing nearly record high temperatures reaching just over 116 degrees Fahrenheit. It's been so hot that asphalt melted on a stretch of highway, and local news outlets reported a surge in attendance at Australian beaches as residents struggle to escape dangers like heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Australian wildlife has also been impacted by the intense heat.

According to conservation group Help Save the Wildlife and Bushlands in Campbelltown, which operates just south of Sydney, more than 400 flying foxes from a local bat colony were found dead, possibly due to the heat. Pictures show rows of flying fox bodies collected from trees or where they were found after dropping to the ground.

Flying foxes are a type of large bat, and six species can be found in Australia. The Australian government officially lists one of those species as critically endangered and two others as vulnerable, while some species can be found in abundance and have at times been labeled a nuisance.

World's Weirdest: Flying Foxes

As a species, flying foxes help maintain a healthy ecosystem, because they are one of the country's most active pollinators. It's unclear if the die-off will impact their populations overall. But speaking with Australian TV station Sky News, a spokesperson from the Campbelltown group predicted that thousands could succumb to the heat before the summer's end.

Kate Ryan, a Campbelltown flying fox colony manager, told local outlet Macarthur Advertiser that the heat has deadly impacts on the animals' brains.

“It would be like standing in the middle of a sandpit with no shade," she said of being a flying fox roosting in a tree.

Scott Heinrich, director of the Flying Fox Conservation Fund, says many flying foxes drop from trees because of dehydration. In 2014, the last time Australia experienced comparable temperatures, more than 45,000 flying foxes are estimated to have died from the heat.

"They can't cool their body down at that point," Heinrich says. "In a way, they're kind of boiling in their bodies."

The flying mammals aren't the only Australian animals struggling with the heat.

Wildlife groups have been actively spraying down koalas that are perched in trees. Koalas are easily startled by people, so the Melbourne-based Koala Clancy Foundation has been promoting a technique that entails spraying koalas from long distances with a specific type of quiet hose.

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It's unclear if any koalas have died in this heatwave, but the animals have increasingly struggled with hot, dry Australian summers, and some experts fear that climate change could exacerbate the problem.

Koalas primarily hydrate by eating water-filled eucalyptus leaves, and the trees are among their most important habitats. However, University of Sydney researchers concluded last March that hotter, drier conditions were drying out leaves and forcing koalas from trees.

“Increasing hot and dry conditions will mean more droughts and heat waves affecting the koalas’ habitat,” Valentina Mella, a University of Sydney postdoctoral researcher, said at the time.

In 2013, National Geographic pondered whether Australia was the face of climate change to come. The research that has since followed makes this prediction seem increasingly likely.

Australia released a State of the Climate report in 2016 that shows surface and ocean warming of a mean one degree Celsius in the country since 1910. The report also found that rainfall decreased by 19 percent since 1970 and extreme heatwaves had increased in both frequency and intensity.

Just last October, a study from the Australian National University in Canberra predicted that the country could see summer temperatures reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040.

In addition to the animals taken in by wildlife officials, Australian residents have posted comments on the rescue groups' update posts claiming that kookaburras and pygmy possums were observed drinking from backyard birdbaths or hiding under homes for shade. Animals are also susceptible to burning their paws if they walk on hot asphalt.

The wildlife rescue group Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service has a tip sheet for how to identify heat exhaustion in various species of animals.