Photograph from NGT
Published June 11, 2012
For the first time, a rare bat has been filmed in high definition using its record-breaking tongue, slurping nectar from a tunnel-like flower.
The creature is only about two inches (five centimeters) long, but its tongue is nearly three and a half inches (nine centimeters) long—one and a half times longer than the bat's body.
When not collecting nectar from the Centropogon nigricans flower, the bat's tongue is retracted and stored in the animal's rib cage.
In the new high-def video—which aired Sunday as part of the National Geographic Channel's Untamed Americas documentary series—the bat is shown feeding on the wing. (The Channel and National Geographic News are affiliated within the National Geographic Society.)
"These bats can hover," said biologist Nathan Muchhala, who helped discover the species in an Andean cloud forest. "They're like hummingbirds in that sense."
In a close-up, the animal's tongue slithers, snakelike, down the flower's long neck. When the tongue reaches the pool of sweet nectar at the bottom, the tip transforms, becoming suddenly prickly as hairlike structures called papillae extend outward.
"Just before the bat retracts the tongue, the [papillae] stick straight out sideways," said Muchhala, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "That maximizes the surface area, allowing it to act like a mop and sop up as much nectar as possible."
Evolutionary Race of Increasing Lengths?
The system seems to work, and perhaps not surprisingly—tongue and flower are thought to have evolved in tandem over millennia, to the point where C. nigricans can be pollinated only by A. fistulata.
As the furry bat feeds, its bobbing head collects a dusting of pollen, which gets deposited onto the next flower the bat visits.
"It turns out that longer tubes make a bat lift its head up more during a visit," which in turn causes more pollen to get dumped onto the animal's head, said Muchhala, who suspects the species are locked in "coevolutionary race of increasing lengths."
Luckily the bat doesn't seem the least bit deterred by the flower's musky smell.
"It's not as strong as a skunk, but it's in that direction," said Muchhala, whose work with A. fistulata was partly funded by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.
(See National Geographic magazine pictures: "Bat Crash.")
Secrets of the Shoot
To get the super-tongue footage, National Geographic filmmakers flew to Ecuador, where Muchhala and his team were waiting with a bat they'd already netted.
Filming took place in a special tent, in which the bat could freely fly and feed. To make the tongue visible to the camera, a small hole was cut at the base of the flower.
"They put the camera behind the hole and got that amazing close-up shot," Muchhala said.
At first, the bats were bothered by the humans and the bright lights in the tent and would not approach the flower to feed, but they eventually adjusted.
"They actually get so used to it that after a while," Muchhala said, "you come into the tent and they come up to you and will land on your hand looking for nectar."
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Latest News Video
Mazes are a powerful tool for neuroscientists trying to figure out the brain and help us learn to grapple with the unexpected.