The little New Zealand bat, Mystacina
(Figs. 1, 2), provides a living example for the earlier drop and hover hypothesis for the origin of bat flight. Most bats hang by their feet and observe what is below when they are not flying. This one, not so much.
Distinct from other bats,
Mystacina spends about thirty percent of its time on the ground on all fours (see YouTube video link below), wings folded, digit 2, the ventral one, reduced to a bumper.
The sharp incisor teeth
are used to scrape away soft tree interiors to create arboreal burrows. This trait is co-opted by related and sometimes terrestrial vampire bats to scrape away cattle skin to start bleeding.
The propatagium is small
to aid in terrestrial locomotion. Mystacina has a large brain. A YouTube video (click to view) shows Mystacina in action.
Based on its performance,
and location, I wondered if Mystacina would be one of the most primitive of bats. It is not. So it may have reverted to a more primitive way of getting along (walking on all fours) after earlier achieving inverted bipedality and flight. Perhaps isolation on New Zealand as the only endemic mammal permitted this to happen.
Can you think of another set of animals
that reverted to quadrupedal locomotion after achieving flight? (Answer below).
Mystacina tuberculata (Gray 1843; 6-7cm snout-vent length) is the extant New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat. The tail extends beyong the uropatagia. It sometimes feeds on nectar with a long hairy tongue, but is considered omnivorous because it eats beetles and larvae. Today’s post was inspired by the discovery of a fossil relative from the Miocene of New Zealand, Vulcanops jennyworthyae.
Be wary of NatGeo.com stories
with headlines about burrowing bats. Mystacina bats burrow their way into the cores of rotting trees using their scraping incisors, a point missed by the author of the story from 2018, but cited by her in another online story here. Bats did not create small caves in the ground. At best they disturbed or ran into dense leaf litter to locate their prey.
Earlier we looked at the origin of large wings/hands
as holders of fruit hanging from trees (Fig. 5), either for the fruit itself or for the insects boring through it. This allows fruit bats and micro bats to have a phylogenetic common ancestor (Fig. 4 in clawed bats like Icaronycteris and Onychonycteris.
Hanging upside down is something
many, if not all basal placentals did and do (Fig. 5). Those who don’t, like humans, horses and elephants, are derived. In contrast, bats rely only on their feet to hang upside down. The tail is no longer involved and disappears in some taxa.
If you’re still wondering about
the other animals that reverted to a quadrupedal configuration after learning how to fly, think of the pterodactyloid-grade pterosaurs, which did so four times by convergence (Figs. 7, 8) according to the large pterosaur tree (LPT). Based on the extreme small size of hatchlings due to phylogenetic miniaturization at the genesis of these clades, these baby pterosaurs were probably relegated to clambering through dense, moist leaf litter until reaching a size that enabled flight without rapid desiccation due to a high surface-to-volume ratio.
I have to say,
putting together these cladograms of vertebrates, pterosaurs and therapsids has taught me more about the theory of evolution and the way things work than dissecting a frog ever did in high school, or picking matrix off a fossil later on. Comparative anatomy gives one an appreciation and understanding of micro-evolution, not only what happened, but often why it happened over a wide range of taxa, some of which have never been compared to one another before.
the focus of paleontology textbooks seems to be showing chapter after chapter of skeletons, too often without making such distant comparisons with a freedom not often enough permitted in academia.
Gray JE 1843. List of the Specimens of Mammalia in the Collection of the British Museum, George Woodfall and Son, London.