Bats pollinate like bees – and this fruity tropical plant depends on it

Meet the Flower Bat.

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Spout Crew

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Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a passion for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviors and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, his subjects celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live among us can be.

By Bec Crew

February 15, 2022

Reading time: 3 Minutes
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We’ve heard about the importance of pollination by bees – it supports around a third of the world’s food production. But some plants, like the beautiful Fijian Dillenia biflora tree, cannot live without a very different type of pollinator: the flower bat.

Bats are known to pollinate a variety of plant species. And, as you can see in the image above, they do it with nothing but aplomb.

For example, the tubular-lipped nectar bat (Fistulous anuran) from Ecuador has an extraordinarily long tongue, which helps it access the nectar inside the flowers of the Centropogon nigricans plant.

These flowers have petals that grow out in a trumpet shape and spread about 9cm – way too long for most creatures to access the nectar inside.

But with an 8.5cm long tongue – about 150% the size of its total body length – and a slender, elongated snout, the nectariferous bat has no problem feeding on these flowers. In fact, this bat has the longest tongue, relative to body size, known to science. His tongue is so long that he has to store it in his rib cage.

This is a tubular-lipped nectar bat feeding on a C. nigricans flower, alongside a buff-tailed sickle hummingbird (Eutoxeres condemned) from South America, with its nectar-collecting beak:

(Image credit: L. Lagomarsino et al. Evolution 71, 1970-1985; 2017)

The Fijian Flower Bat (Notopteris macdonaldi) (seen here in the top left corner, looks like he just got caught with his fingers in the cookie jar) might not have the longest tongue in the world, but so he filled with nectar from D.biflora plant, it is not necessary.

The pollen-covered anthers of D.biflora the flowers – called kuluva flowers – are covered in an elegant dome of petals. For many years, scientists assumed that this prevented anything larger than a bee from accessing pollen.

But a world-first discovery, announced by scientists at the University of South Australia, describes how kuluva flowers are actually pollinated by Fijian fruit bats.

It turns out that these clever little creatures have learned to chew on the dome of the petals to “lift the lid” off the kuluva flowers and gain access to the goods inside.

(Image credit: Assoc Prof S. ‘Topa’ Petit)

And that’s just as well as flower bats have figured it out – researchers have found that the D.biflora the plant cannot reproduce without their help.

“We found that kuluva flowers never open on their own and were instead ripped off by flowering bats foraging for the sugar-rich nectar inside,” says biologist Sophie ‘Topa’ Petit from the University of South Australia, first author of the paper describing the discovery this month.

“The bat lands on a whorl of leaves, removes the corolla and licks the nectar, covering its nose with pollen in the process. The bat’s pollen is then carried to other flowers of the same species, which are pollinated and produce fruit containing seeds,” explains Petit.

“Kuluva flowers have only one chance to be pollinated. Each is mature and receptive for one night only. But because the petals of kuluva flowers are permanently closed, if their corolla is not removed, the flower will die without reproducing.

Petit and his colleagues called this new pollination system chiropteropisteusisfrom the Greek for “to lean on bats”.

We leave you with this video of the little long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae), which pollinates cactus flowers. Let’s say that tequila lovers owe a lot to this little bat:

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