Human Flower Project
Floral Long-Necks and Bat Sippers
A biologist comes upon the longest-tongued mammal in the world and its evolutionary companion—a flower.
Anoura geoffroyi pollinating Burmeistera sodiroana
Photo: Murray Cooper
Chiropterophilous is a tongue twister. It means “bat-pollinated” and describes not only tremulous damsels but many intriguing flowering plants.
Tomorrow in Nature Magazine, Nathan Muchhala—a chiropterophilous-phile, if ever there was one—will publish his findings from the cloud-forests of Ecuador: his discovery of Anoura fistulata, a bat with the longest tongue (relative to its body length) of any mammal in the world, and the long-necked flower—Centropogon nigricans—that only it can pollinate.
Muchhala, a biologist at University of Miami, has been studying bat-pollinated plants for years now. “Some of the most compelling evidence for coevolution,” he writes, “comes from the tight morphological match between extremely long-tongued animals and the flowers they pollinate.” In most cases, several types of bat will sup at a number of night-flowers, and may eat insects and fruit, too. But the Anoura fistula, Muchhala writes, is “a spectacular exception.” Its tongue is twice as long as the tongues of its bat cousins and, thus, it “serves as the exclusive pollinator of a plant (Centropogon nigricans) with flowers of matching length.” We’ve heard of a one-man dog, now a one-bat flower.
In vain we’ve looked for photos of this bat and Centropogon nigricans, but the best we can offer is this weird simulation, of the bat unfurling its tongue down a sweet test tube. Maybe the Nature article will show the real thing. (It does.)
Lonchophylla robusta bat drinks nectar from Matisia cordata
Photo: Neotropical Bats
The New York Botanical Garden offers a gallery of bat-pollinated flowers to give you some idea what blooms they prefer. In an earlier paper, written with a colleague from Quito, Muchhala listed the floral features that bats find most appealing, among them pale color, mask-like shapes, smooth waxy surfaces, and, of course, nocturnal nectar production.
This exciting research sets us on the lookout for chiropterophilous flowers for our own garden (daturas, maybe?). There’s a huge colony of Mexican free-tailed bats right here in Austin, and we would welcome night diners.
Notes: Nathan writes, “Datura, I believe, are moth-pollinated - they have very sweet nocturnal smells, right? Bat-flowers tend to be musky-smelling… There should be some night-blooming cacti in your area that are bat-pollinated, by the Mexican long-nosed nectar bat, Leptonycteris nivalis; Mexican free-tails are actually 100% insect-eaters.” (Thanks, Nathan! We’d love for them to snack on our mosquitos.)