How does diet and echolocation influence the evolution of diverse skull shapes in bats?

An image of a fruit bat to illustrate the concept of bat skulls which have evolved
© iStock/Craig Dingle

Diet and echolocation caused the evolution of such diverse skull shapes in different species of bats, according to the University of Washington.

The biologists at the University of Washington focused on the diversity of bat species in terms of their skull shapes, and analysed the influences on their evolution.

There are more than 1,300 bat species worldwide, according to the University of Washington. Different bat species look quite different, with some having large ears, elaborate noses, or long jaws.

Analysing bat skulls

Sharlene Santana, UW associate professor of biology and curator of mammals at the UW’s Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture, said: “Our study sought to address a major question about the evolution of diversity in the bat skull: What explains the large number of differences that we see in skull shape? We found that echolocation is a major -and ancient – contributor to skull shape. Diet is also important, but generally more recent.”

Skulls of a common blossom bat, Syconycteris australis (left) and a grey-headed flying fox, Pteropus poliocephalus (right).
© Dennis Wise/University of Washington

The team performed high-resolution microCT scans of the skulls of more than 200 bat species. They combined this with information on the evolutionary relationships among bat species and analysed the physical evolution of bat skulls over the tens of millions of years. They were able to correlate these changes with specific events such as when a bat lineage swapped diets, to establish that echolocation and diet played a large role in their diversity.

The diversity of bat species

Shown left-to-right are preserved specimens of Waterhouse’s leaf-nosed bats (from the leaf-nosed bat family); velvety free-tailed bats (from the free-tailed bat family); Cuban flower bats (from the leaf-nosed bat family); and brown flower bats (from the leaf-nosed bat family).
© Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Santana commented: “The leaf-nosed bats stand out for their extraordinary diversity in skull shape and diet. Over a relatively short period of time, they evolved a suite of skull adaptations as they radiated into different dietary niches.”

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