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UNL research prof discovered ‘supertongued’ bat to be featured by NatGeo

Photo: Murray Cooper, courtesy Nathan Muchhala

When Anoura fistulata – also known as the Tube-Lipped Nectar Bat – was first discovered in South America in 2005, it gained worldwide notoriety for its ability to snap its tongue out 1 1/2 times its own body length, proportionally longer than other mammals and twice as long as other similar bats.

On Sunday, when the super-tongued marvel makes its high-definition, prime-time television debut on a National Geographic Channel special, one viewer in Lincoln will be observing that super-tongue very closely – maybe taking a few notes, even.

Nathan Muchhala of UNL’s School of Biological Sciences was a leader of the research team that discovered the bat in the cloud forests of the Ecuadoran Andes seven years ago. He and colleagues later identified it as a new species.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln postdoctoral fellow since 2011, Muchhala recently traveled to South America with a NatGeo film crew to capture the long-tongued bat in super-slow motion as it zipped from bloom to jungle flower bloom, slurping nectar from long-funneled flowers. The footage will appear in the premier episode of the network’s new nature documentary series Untamed Americas, which airs Sunday and Monday.

“This will be interesting video that we’re excited to see and that we should be able to follow up on,” Muchhala said. “It should give us a chance to see better how that tongue works.”

Researchers suspect the bat’s super-long tongue evolved to forage on long, bell-shaped Andean flowers that have nectar buried at the end of their long funnels. The bat takes a fraction of a second to sink its tongue repeatedly into the flower tube in search of nectar and, as it does, picks up pollen on its head and snout. It then drops the pollen off at the next flower it visits.

In experiments, Muchhala and colleagues discovered the tongue was nearly 3 1/2 inches long. Considering the bat’s body is about two inches long, it was a surprising find, and it led to another theory – that the bat and the flower, Centropogon nigricans, evolved together. The flower’s funnel is just as long as the bat’s tongue.

“It was really neat to discover the bat, and it was in comparing it to other nectar bats that got us thinking about its role in pollinating that specific flower,” he said.

The footage, Muchhala said, should shed more light on Anoura fistulata’s most amazing trait – and just exactly how that tongue extends to nab nectar.

“One thing you can see in some of the close-up footage is the way the papillae, or ‘hairs,’ on the end of the tongue stick straight out right before the tongue retracts, maximizing surface area and allowing the bat to mop up as much nectar as possible per lick,” he said.

The bat’s tongue also appears to differ from the “ballistic” tongue of a chameleon, which stays coiled inside its mouth until needed and then unfurls at breakneck speed. Instead, the bat’s tongue’s base slides back and into its rib cage. When it extends its tongue, it does so gradually and at a constant rate, more like how an earthworm moves, Muchhala said.

“The film helps us see that whole process much more clearly,” he said. “It all takes place in a third of a second, and there’s an incredible amount of detail (in the footage).”

Muchhala came to UNL to further his research and is learning how to do genetic work in UNL assistant professor Stacey Smith’s lab, which focuses on the origin and maintenance of floral diversity. Currently, he’s extracting DNA from plants and bats to develop phylogenetic “trees” to map out the species’ evolutionary relationships.

“These diagrams will help us to understand the evolution of the remarkable adaptations of both the flowers and their pollinators,” he said.

The two-night miniseries, narrated by actor Josh Brolin, begins at 8 p.m. CDT on the National Geographic Channel. Here’s a preview of the video featuring the Tube-Lipped Nectar Bat and more on the Untamed Americas series.

Contact: Nathan Muchhala, research assistant professor, UNL School of Biological Sciences at nmuchhala2@unl.edu.

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