National Geographic Daily News
Photo: The tube lipped bat

Photograph from NGT

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

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.

First discovered in Ecuador in 2005, the tube-lipped nectar bat (Anoura fistulata) has the longest tongue, relative to body length, of any known mammal. (See "Bat Has Longest Tongue of Any Mammal.")

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."

(Video: Spider Kills Bat.)

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.

(Related: "Strange New Leaf-Nosed Bat Species Discovered.")

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."

On TV: The second episode of Untamed Americas premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m. ET/PT in the U.S. >>

0 comments

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

  • Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    After achieving nuclear fusion at age 14, Taylor, now 19, is working with subatomic particles for solutions to nuclear terrorism and cancer.

See more innovators »

Phenomena

See more posts »

Latest News Video

  • How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    The nation's most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen is taking a 2,000-mile road trip from Montana to its new home in Washington, D.C.

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »