Media & Education
BATS Magazine

Volume 6, Issue 3, Fall 1988

Pe'a's Story

This summer three BCI members went for lunch at the marketplace in Apia, Western Samoa's largest city, and found serendipity instead. Elizabeth "Dixie"Pierson has studied bats for the past 12 years, often accompanied in the field by her husband Bill Rainey, an evolutionary biologist. With them was botanist Paul Cox, and they were in Samoa to continue their pollination and behavioral studies of Samoa's two flying fox species, the Samoan flying fox (Pteropus samoensis) and the Tongan flying fox (P. tonganus).

A voice rang out over the noisy market, "Cokie! Cokie!" Paul strained to see who was calling his Samoan name. Out of the crowd, a native woman he had known from previous visits came toward them, a baby Samoan flying fox clinging tightly to her shoulder. "I've looked for you here every day for a month,"she told Paul in Samoan. Even though she hadn't seen him for a year and a half, she didn't seem to question that she would find him, accepting without amazement that he had returned.

The woman explained that the mother of the baby flying fox had been killed by hunters. She had been taking care of the orphan, "saving it"she said, for her old friend Paul, whom she knew loved bats and would take good care of the little one. She was no longer able to look after the needs of a growing flying fox.

Although there was no way to determine the orphan's exact age, he was obviously very young. When perched on Paul's hand, the baby flying fox would tighten his grip every time Paul moved, and when he wanted sleep he would curl up, wrapping his wings securely around Paul's forearm— all indicating that, in the wild, he would still be clinging to his mother. He wanted warmth and liked to be held close, especially over the chest where he could hear a heartbeat. They named him Pe'a, the Samoan word for bat.

Back at their hotel, the three of them took turns feeding Pe'a baby formula every two hours, around the clock, first from a syringe and later from a bottle, which he greatly preferred. Along with the formula, he also accepted mashed ripe bananas. During the day while they were in the field, Pe'a perched on a stick bridged between two tables in Dixie and Bill's room. Each night before retiring, Bill put a dish of milk on the edge of the table, only guessing at how much the growing baby needed. The milk was gone in the morning, and it wasn't long before Pe'a let them know they weren't putting out enough. At three in the morning, Bill was awakened by gentle, but insistent, taps on his face. He opened one eye and found himself nose to nose with a hungry flying fox demanding immediate and undivided attention. Still flightless, Pe'a had crawled down the table leg, across the floor, and up the bedding to reach Bill, the human who set out his food.

Dixie wasn't left out. Within a few days after they took in the orphan, he began to exercise his wings when picked up. Dixie would hold him firmly by his feet while he beat his wings, rested, and then started over. Once he knew how to get attention at night, he visited Dixie also, tapping her face with his wing. The first time this happened she noted that food wasn't what he wanted— there was still milk in his dish. Thinking he was asking for affection, she picked him up, but instead, Pe'a tightened his grip on her hand, spread his wings and began to flap. Then he did something he hadn't done before; with a little push, he thrust off from her hand and glided to the floor, wings outspread, appearing to carefully control his descent. He then crawled across the floor and up her leg, clearly wanting to try again. Sometimes they played the game for an hour or more.

It was a rare opportunity to observe the development of flying behavior. In the wild, Samoan flying foxes roost near the tops of ridges where adults can be seen dropping and gliding, high above the jungle floor as they soar on late afternoon thermals.

As the research team finished their work for the season, it became clear that finding a home for the orphaned flying fox in his native land was, sadly, not possible. Much like a human infant, he was extremely vulnerable and would need expert and intensive care for some time. It was still much too soon to release him to the wild. They all agreed that his best chance for survival would be to bring him back to the U.S. with them.

Pe'a has since been to the U.S. Congress where he won many hearts and some friends for the proposed national park in American Samoa which would protect others of his kind from being killed as his mother was. He now lives with Paul and his wife, Barbara, where he is continuing his flying lessons. Like any youngster, he is playful and curious. He also appears to be strikingly observant and intelligent. His behavior is already teaching his rescuers much about his relatives, lessons which will help protect future generations of these magnificent animals.

Pe'a, an orphaned Samoan flying fox, hangs out with Paul Cox. As an adult, Pe'a will have a wingspan of five feet or more. PHOTO BY MERLIN D. TUTTLE

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