Bat with supertongue seen for first time in Nat Geo series

Kiss' frontman Gene Simmons has some competition: Ecuador's long-tongued bat boasts a 3½-inch tongue half again as long as its body.

The elusive bat shows off its tongue in first-time footage next week in the premier episode of a National Geographic Channel documentary, Untamed Americas. People would need tongues about 9 feet long to match the bat's proportions. To accomplish this feat, the bat keeps its tongue stuffed down its throat, doubled up in its esophagus.

"A pretty extreme adaptation, evolving a tongue longer than your own body" says biologist Nathan Muchhala of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, one of the bat's 2005 discoverers. "Just amazing footage that we can now really see how it works."

Shown in the first episode of the nature documentary, the footage of the Andean bat "is very impressive, but so is the story it tells about evolution," says pollination biologist Justen Whittall of Santa Clara University in California. Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, theorized in 1862 that creatures would evolve features such as long tongues (or the proboscis, for moths), to take nectar from long-stemmed flowers. Darwin proposed the existence of a Madagascar moth years before its discovery.

Research on the long-tongued bat since its discovery advances that centuries-old proposition, Whittall says. Basically, the flowers grew longer so the bats would have to get their heads covered in pollen.

In a series of experiments, Muchhala and colleagues artificially lengthened the tube of the Andean flower. They showed that a flower just a bit longer than the bat's tongue forced the critter to butt its head into the pollen-loaded rim of the flower, loading up the far-flying bat's noggin with pollen to deposit on the next flower it visits.

"Unfortunately, the flower has a, well, skunky smell," says Muchhala, who traveled with the documentary makers to capture the bats in action in the Ecuadorean Andes. "Bees like sweet-smelling flowers; bats like the awful ones."


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