The origin of flight in bats: what we knew in 1992.

Famous for his whale studies,
JGM (Hans) Thewissen turned his attention to bats as a postdoctoral fellow in 1984. His co-author, SK Babcock, was a graduate student at the time.

Their introduction
includes their intention of reviewing then current controversies despite “extremely sparse” fossil evidence. They mentioned the hundreds of Eocene bat skeletons known from the Messel quarry near Darmstadt, Germany, but note that even late Paleocene bats were “nearly as specialized as their modern relatives.”  Their report preceded by several years the publication of Onychonycteris (Simmons, Seymour, Habersetze and Gunnell 2008), the most primitive bat known at present.

Two kinds of bats were noted, Megachiroptera and Microchiroptera.
“Megabats have a simple shoulder joint and a clawlike nail on thumb and index finger, whereas mi-crobats have a complicated shoulder joint and a claw only on the thumb.” Microbats use echolocation to eat insects with their sharp crested teeth. Megabats generally do not, but a few do. They are herbivores with blunt molars.

Earlier we looked at
the dual origins of turtles,  whales, seals and the four origins of the “pterodactyloid”-grade pterosaurs. Workers have wondered if mega bats and micro bats also had dual origins.  This was the main theme of the Thewissen and Babcock paper, penned before the widespread advent and adoption of computer-based phylogenetic analysis. Instead, everyone looked at a few to many traits and pulled a Larry Martin. Sometimes they were right. Othertimes, they were wrong to slightly wrong. Smith and Madkour 1980 first proposed a dual origin for bats by looking at the penis.

Thewissen and Bacock renege on their headline promise when they report,
“If the problem of bat origins is ever solved, it will be after a careful anal-ysis of all characterso f interesti n the bats and their potential relatives.” Of course this was shortly  before PAUP and MacClade came on the scene the same year.

Thewissen and Babcock report:
“Both microbats and megabats have a propatagial muscle complex, but it is surprisingly different in the two groups.” In mega bats this complex has four proximal origins,

  1. the back of the skull
  2. the side of the face
  3. the ventral side of the neck and
  4. the midline of the chest

compared to only two origins in micro bats (1 and 4). There is also variation within micro bats and within mega bats. As readers know, there is no way to understand this unless outgroups have one or the other pattern and they don’t (at present). Thewissen and Babcock report, “gliding flight has evolved six times in mammals.” But gliders don’t make good flyers. To fly one needs thrust provided by flapping. How and why bats started flapping has really been the key underlying, unanswered question, which we looked at earlier here and here.

Back in 1910
WK Gregory concluded after careful study that bats, flying lemurs, tree shrews, elephant shrews and primates were closely related and called that group (clade) Archonta. According to the large reptile tree (LRT, 1043 taxa) many of these taxa are indeed related. Elephant shrews are not, which Thewissen and Babcock later note. Elephant shrews are also the only ones from that list that are not arboreal climbers. Thewissen and Babcock add the clade Plesiadapiformes, which were thought to be rodent-like primates, but turn out to be primate-like rodents nesting close to multituberculates in the LRT.

Figure 1. Bat cladogram. Here pangolins are the nearest living relatives of bats.

Figure 1. Bat cladogram. Here pangolins are the nearest living relatives of bats.

Flying lemurs,
like Cynocephalus, also have a propatagium that originates from the side of the face and midline of the neck, but the nerves within them terminate in different places in bats. The LRT recovers flying lemurs close relatives to bats, but pangolins, like Manis, are closer.

Thewissen and Babcock conclude: 
“We believe that the evidence from the propatagial muscle complex of bats supports the idea that all bats share a single ancestor with wings. This idea is consistent with bats going through a flying lemur-like stage before acquiring active flight.”

the LRT recovers a topology in which the last common ancestor of flying lemurs and bats was likely arboreal, but not a leaping glider. That means membranes developed in parallel (close convergence). Remember, gliders don’t become flappers. And flappers usually develop flapping for reasons other than flight, then co-opt flapping traits for flight.

The ancestors of bats and pangolins
have had a long time to diverge. Likely that was in the Late Jurassic because we have the pangolin ancestor, Zhangheotherium, appearing in the Early Cretaceous. That puts the last common ancestor of flying lemurs, pangolins and bats, Ptilocercus, back in the Middle Jurassic, several tens of millions of years after the likely first appearances of therian mammals, like the living and very late surviving Didelphis and Monodelphis sometime in the Early Jurassic. Earlier we looked at the origin of bats here, here and here.

Figure 2. Select basal cynodonts and mammals set chronologically. The divergence times for placentals (Eutheria), marsupials (Metatheria) and monotremes (Mammalia) are estimated here.

Figure 2. Select basal cynodonts and mammals set chronologically. The divergence times for placentals (Eutheria), marsupials (Metatheria) and monotremes (Mammalia) are estimated here.

Simmon NB, Seymour KL, Habersetzer J, Gunnell GF 2008. Primitive Early Eocene bat from Wyoming and the evolution of flight and echolocation. Nature 451 (7180): 818–21. doi:10.1038/nature06549. PMID 18270539.
Smith, J. D., and G. Madkour. 1980. Penial morphology and the question of chiropteran phylogeny. Pages 347-365 in D. E. Wilson and A. L. Gardner, eds. Proceedings of the 5th International Bat ResearchC onference. Texas Tech Press, Lubbock.
Thewissen JGM and Babcock SK 1992. The origin of flight in bats. BioScience 42(5):340–345.



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