The origin and evolution of bats, part 4, an inverted thought experiment

There are no fossils
that currently document the origin of bats from non-volant carnivores or omnivores. Birds have a long fossil history. So do pterosaurs. For bats we have to conduct thought experiments in order to get from points we know: 1) a skilled arboreal omnivore like Ptilocercus, to 2) an Eocene fossil bat, like Icaronycteris (Fig. 1). It won’t help to have a Paleocene tooth, or skull. Those don’t change much in bat origins. We need to see, or visualize, the post-cranial body. Earlier forays into bat origins can be seen here, here and here.

Figure 1. GIF animation thought experiment on the origin and evolution of bats from a Ptilocercus-like omnivore.

Figure 1. GIF animation thought experiment on the origin and evolution of bats from an inverted Ptilocercus-like omnivore. Click to enlarge. Perhaps long fingers originally pulled maggots out of fruit and excellent hearing helped probate find where to dig.

We start with what we know

  1. All or most bats hang inverted
  2. The basal phylogenetic split is between Megachiroptera (fruit eaters) and Microchiroptera (insect eaters)
  3. Bat embryos probably recapitulate the development of those unknown phylogenetic predecessors, And they have big webbed hands early on.
  4. Bats don’t fly until their wings are nearly full size.
  5. What separates Ptilocercus from Icaronycteris is chiefly the size of the hands.
  6. There is no evidence that bats find their wings or wing size sexually attractive
  7. Caves are derived roosting spots. You have to fly in those to get a spot.
  8. Likewise, catching insects on the wing and echolocation follows the advent of flying, but listening to maggots munching fruit might have been a precursor skill.

The big question has always been
how do you get a flight stroke out of quadruped? Pterosaur and bird ancestors were both bipeds with strong hind limbs and they evolved wings as 1) gaudy secondary sexual traits; and 2) to aid in locomotion, especially up steep inclines (Heers et al. 2016 and references therein). The only way that bats were bipeds was inverted with weak hind limbs, which is a whole different story, or, in this case, a whole different thought experiment.

Figure 2. Pteropus, a fruit bat.

Figure 2. Pteropus, a fruit bat, has relatively shored clavicles and larger scapulae extending over most of the rib cage. The extremely long toes are derived. Parallel interphalangeal joints present on bat wings show the phalanges flex in sets.

Hypothetical stages in bat development

  1. Start with an agile arboreal omnivore like Ptilocercus, derived from long-legged arboreal carnivores in the Cretaceous/Paleocene, like Chriacus.
  2. Hanging fruit and the maggots therein can be attacked by likewise hanging on the supporting branch.
  3. The tiny hands of Ptilocercus could hold the fruit more steadily if the f fingers were longer. Maybe digging out maggots was aided by longer, thinner fingers.
  4. Webbing on even longer fingers would help trap juices, pieces, maggots from dropping out, and (see #6).
  5. At this stage the inverted biped no longer uses those hyper-elongate fingers for climging, so they are capable of being folded, not from the metatarsophalangeal joint, but at the wrist.
  6. In tropical forests bats use their wings as fans to cool themselves off (see video here), often after salivating on themselves for evaporative cooling. This is one of two pre-flight-stroke actions I have found.
  7. To rise from an inverted position on a branch, bats will flap vigorously (Fig. 3), which is the other pre-flight-stroke action.
  8. Mother bats wrap developing infants in their folded wings, but that doesn’t get them into the air.
  9. At a certain point, the pro-bat has wings that are capable of fanning the air, but incapable of flying. This is when the first branch-to-branch and tree-to-tree flapping leaps took place. If the pro-bat falls to the ground, it dies. Only successful arboreal flapping ‘acro-bats’ survive and improvements increase those odds.
Figure 1. Is this the origin of bat flapping. From an inverted position, this bat rises to horizontal by flapping, still clinging to its perch until release and flight. Click to open video.

Figure 3. Is this the origin of bat flapping. From an inverted position, this bat rises to horizontal by flapping, still clinging to its perch until release and flight. Click to open video.

In summary,
hanging pro-bats first developed long fingers to hold hanging fruit and perhaps remove maggots. Fanning for cooling could only develop with large webbed hands. Vigorous flapping from an inverted configuration is one solution to elevating the head and body. Letting go with the feet during this activity is the first awkward and potentially lethal stage to ultimately perfecting the flight stroke over many generations. The origin of flapping in bats is only a thought experiment at present with no other evidence currently available.

Heers AM, Baier DB, Jackson BE & Dial  KP 2016. Flapping before Flight: High Resolution, Three-Dimensional Skeletal Kinematics of Wings and Legs during Avian Development. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153446. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153446
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