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A bat that crawls as much as it flies shows ancient lineages


bat that walksGiven fully functional wings, what animal wouldn’t prefer to fly? The lesser short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata), as it turns out. The resident of New Zealand proves to be one of only two bats in the world that is just as comfortable scampering on the ground as it is soaring through the sky.

How did it pick up this trick? Not from recent island adaptation as previously presumed, but from an ancestor about 20 million years ago, according to a study published yesterday in Conservation Biology.

“The lesser short-tailed bat seems to be the sole survivor of an ancient Australian lineage now found only in New Zealand,” lead author Suzanne Hand said in a prepared statement.

Video of the bat shows it crawling rather adeptly over forest floors, logs and into burrows. The M. tuberculata uses its wings as front legs and it has specially adapted wrinkles on its feet to help it grip.

Fossils of the bat’s ancestors show this walking adaptation occurred before the genus became isolated in New Zealand. “This study shows that, contrary to existing hypotheses, bats are not overwhelmingly absent from the ground because of competition from, or predation by, other mammals,” said Hand, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

The other crawling bat is the American vampire bat (Desmondus rotundus), which uses walking, running and hopping to remain undetected—and out of harm’s way—when dining on its victims.

Image courtesy of Rod Morris

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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