Most plants that rely on animals to assist in pollination look to insects. In general, insects are abundant, easy to please, and efficient at transferring pollen. Because insect pollination is such a common scenario, it is easy to overlook pollination that is carried out by vertebrates. Birds are the most prominent pollinator among vertebrates, but mammals participate, too. The most common mammal pollinator is the bat.
About a fifth of all mammal species on the planet are bats, with species estimates numbering in the 1200-1300 range. Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. They are not blind, nor are they flying rodents, and they are not going to suck your blood (except in very rare cases!). Most bats eat insects, but a small, significant group of them are nectarivorous. Their main food source is the nectar produced within flowers. In the process of feeding, these bats pollinate plants.
Out of 18 families in the order Chiroptera, only two include species with morphologies that set them apart as nectar-feeders. The family Pteropodidae, known commonly as Old World fruit bats or flying foxes, occurs in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, Australia, Papa New Guinea, and the Pacific Islands. The family Phyllostomidae, known commonly as American leaf-nosed bats, occurs in tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. For simplicity’s sake, the former are referred to as Old World bats, and the latter as New World bats. While both groups are similar in that they consist of species that feed on nectar, they are only distantly related, and thus the nectar feeding species in these families have distinct behavioral and morphological differences.
More than 500 species of plants, spanning 67 plant families, are pollinated by bats. This pollination syndrome is known as chiropterophily. In general, flowers that use this approach tend to be white or dull in color, open at night, rich with nectar, and musty or rotten smelling. They are generally tubular, cup shaped, or otherwise radially symmetrical and are often suspended atop tall stalks or prominently located on branches or trunks. In a review published in Annals of Botany, Theodore Fleming, et al. state “flower placement away from foliage and nocturnal anthesis [blooming] are the unifying features of the bat pollination syndrome,” while all other characteristics are highly variable among species. The family Fabaceae contains the highest number of bat-pollinated genera. Cactaceae, Malvaceae, and Bignoniaceae follow closely behind.
The characteristics of bat pollinated flowers vary widely partly because the bats that visit them are so diverse. Between the two bat families there are similarities in their nectar-feeding species, including an elongated rostrum, teeth that are smaller in number and size, and a long tongue with hair-like projections on the tip. Apart from that, New World bats are much smaller than Old World bats, and their rostrums and tongues are much longer relative to the size of their bodies. New World bats have the ability to hover in front of flowers, while Old World bats land on flowers to feed. Old World bats do not have the ability to use echolocation to spot flowers, while New World bats do. Fleming, et al. conclude, “because of these differences, we might expect plants visited by specialized nectar-feeding [New World bats] to produce smaller flowers with smaller nectar volumes per flower than those visited by their [Old World bat] counterparts.”
Pollination by bats is a relatively new phenomenon, evolutionarily speaking. Flowers that are currently pollinated by bats most likely evolved from flowers that were once pollinated by insects. Some may have evolved from flowers that were previously bird pollinated. The question is, why adopt this strategy? Flowers that are bat pollinated are “expensive” to make. They are typically much bigger than insect pollinated flowers, and they contain large amounts of pollen and abundant, nutrient-rich nectar. Due to resource constraints, many plants are restricted from developing such flowers, but those that do may find themselves at an advantage with bats as their pollinator. For one, hairy bat bodies collect profuse numbers of pollen grains, which are widely distributed as they visit numerous flowers throughout the night. In this way, bats can be excellent outcrossers. They also travel long distances, which means they can move pollen from one population of plants to an otherwise isolated neighboring population. This serves to maintain healthy genetic diversity among populations, something that is increasingly important as plant populations become fragmented due to human activity.
Pollinating bats are also economically important to humans, as several plants that are harvested for their fruits, fibers, or timber rely on bats for pollination. For example, bat pollinated Eucalyptus species are felled for timber in Australia, and the fruits of Durio zibethinus in Southeast Asia form after flowers are first pollinated by bats. Also, the wild relatives of bananas (Musa spp.) are bat pollinated, as is the plant used for making tequila (Agave tequilana).
There is still much to learn about nectarivorous bats and the flowers they visit. It is clear that hundreds of species are using bats to move their pollen, but the process of adopting this strategy and the advantages of doing so remain ripe for discovery. Each bat-plant relationship has its own story to tell. For now, here is a fun video about the bat that pollinates Agave tequilana: