Some bats chug nectar with conveyor belt tongues

Lonchophylla robusta bat

To figure out how nectar-feeding bat tongues work, researchers recorded hairy-tongued bats (such as Glossophaga soricina) and grooved-tongued bats (such as Lonchophylla robusta, shown) feeding on bromeliads and other flowers. 

M. Tschapka/University of Ulm

A subset of bats that eat off the nectar menu sip from flowers using specialized tongues that pump liquid up to their mouths, researchers report September 25 in Science Advances.

Nectar-feeding bat tongues come in two varieties: hairy and groovy. By analyzing high-speed videos of bats feeding, ecologists found that the two anatomies translate to vastly different feeding behaviors. Most nectar-feeding bats have tiny hairs called papillae at the end of their tongues that allow the bats to lap up nectar as cats do milk.

But grooved-tongued bats (Lonchophylla robusta in this study) actually pump nectar up their tongue without breaking contact with the liquid — unlike any other mammal but strangely like a conveyor belt. Capillary action and tongue distortion probably push nectar up the tongue, the researchers write. 

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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