The Jamaican Fruit Bat

Several thick-bodied bats flutter around a cluster of wild grown cacao trees. They chatter amongst themselves while they seek out pieces of the heavy fruit, favoring the pieces that are under ripe. Once a bat has selected the perfect piece of fruit, the sink their sharp teeth into the flesh and start pulling until the stem breaks. Keeping the fruit clenched tightly between their teeth, the bat wheels away from the small stand of trees and finds a quiet, safe branch a short distance away from which they hang while consuming their sweet, sticky treat.

Don’t let the fact that it’s called the Jamaican fruit bat (Artibeus jamaicensis) fool you into assuming that the only place you’ll find representatives of this particular species is in Jamaica. The island merely happens to be the spot where the first member of the species was captured. If you want to catch a glimpse of one of these bats, there’s no shortage of places where you can go. They’ve been identified in the southern Bahama islands, the Caribbean, Argentina, Brazil, and even as far north as the Florida Keys.

As a rule, Jamaican fruit bats stick to lowland rainforests, but some members of the species are exceptions to this rule and will not only forage for fruit in forests that experience seasonal rains, but will also venture into cultivated plantations.

When it comes to roosts, Jamaican fruit bats aren’t picky and will make due with whatever they find. Roosting sites have been found in dead, hollowed out trees, caves, and occasionally, a group settles into a quiet building. There have even been instances when the bats have gotten to work converting large leaves into tents which serve as temporary roost, which is unusual for bats of this size.

Like many other types of fruit bats, Jamaican fruit bats don’t eat at the same trees where they find fruit, preferring to fly away with it. The feeding roost is typically between 25 and 200 meters (82 and 656 feet) from the food supply. For the bat, this is a great way to avoid predators, and ecologically speaking, it’s good for the rainforest since it means the seeds the bat dispenses are well away from the parent tree, which is a good way to spread out genetic material and reforest the land. While fruit like figs and cacao pods make up the bulk of the Jamaican fruit bat’s diet, on occasion, they’ll sip nectar.  Jamaican fruit bats play an important role in ensuring that there’s plenty of chocolate available for us in the future. The species does a remarkable job spreading the cacao seeds through the forest.

While some fruit bats consume the entire piece of fruit, the only thing that interests the Jamaican fruit bat is the juice. They grind the under ripe piece of fruit up with their powerful molars, pulverizing it until they’ve drained every drop of juice before spitting out the pulp and seeds. The species has a remarkably fast digestive system. The bats completely digest their meal in less than twenty minutes. Since the food remains in the gut for such a very short time, experts believe that digestive bacteria aides with the breakdown of nutrients.

Jamaican fruit bats prefer harem style living. The harems generally include about fourteen bats, plus any young the females are caring for. Researchers have observed Jamaican fruit bat harems with both one and two adult males who were responsible for protecting the females and the pups. The males don’t venture far from the roost and will vigorously defend it against any male rivals who start sniffing around.

One of the things that sets Jamaican fruit bats apart from most other bat species is their breeding habits. Researchers believe that some females give birth twice a year, generally bearing one pup at a time. There is also evidence to suggest that in some parts of the world, Jamaican fruit bats breed year-round, rather than limiting themselves to one or two months, but even in these areas, the females hold off on conception until she’s confident she’ll give birth when food is plentiful. The gestation period is about four months long. The pups start flying between one and two months of age and are full size by the time they’re eighty days old. They become sexually active between eight and twelve months.

The IUCN Red List currently has the Jamaican fruit bat listed as Least Concern.

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