Something ghostly and hungry flies the skies of northern Australia. Its massive white wings stand out against the darkness as it circles, searching for prey. When it finds something tasty this unusual creature darts out of the sky, grabs its dinner in its claws, presses it to the ground and bites into the neck with 26 large teeth. Death is quick.
The ghost bat, a.k.a. the false vampire bat (Macroderma gigas), earns its names. Its skin and fur are almost pure white. It knows that necks are particularly vulnerable points of attack (although it's not a blood-sucker). It is absolutely huge, with a wing span reaching more than half a meter. And almost nothing stands in its way: The bats are willing to tackle animals weighing up to 80 percent of their own body weight. Even other bats frequently become the ghost bat's prey.
Of course, the ghost bat isn't immune to human pressures. The species currently exists in fragmented populations, separated by habitat loss and development. Although they tend to fly one or two at a time, these bats form colonies in large caves which have been lost to quarries and other mining activities.
Compared to other, unrelated ghost bats in South America, the Australian ghost bat is actually relatively healthy despite the pressures it faces in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists it as "vulnerable to extinction," citing decreasing population levels, but there are still between 7,000 and 9,000 ghost bats left, so it's not doing too poorly. Some populations are doing better than others, though. As many as 3,500 bats live in the Northern Territory. They're rarer and more at risk in Queensland, where fewer than 1,000 bats remain scattered across several fragmented sites.
I actually wanted to feature a different endangered species this Halloween. The Hewitt's ghost frog (Heleophryne hewitti) of South Africa is officially endangered, with populations in just four rivers and breeding sites that have been almost completely degraded by human activity. There was just one problem with my plan: I couldn't find a good photo of the frogs. That's the problem with writing about endangered species, so many of them are so rare they may as well be ghosts, even if they don't contain the word in their name.
Photo: S J Bennett via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license