Today we’ll take a fresh look at
the behavior and traits of the closest bat relatives in the large reptile tree (LRT, 1233 taxa, subset Fig. 1) and see what they can tell us about bat origins. This is called ‘phylogenetic bracketing‘. In such a thought experiment we can put forth an educated guess regarding an unknown behavior or trait for a unknown taxa (e.g. pre-bats) if all related specimens share similar behaviors and traits inherited from a known or unknown last common ancestor.
We start off with a cladogram
focusing on bat relationships (Fig. 1) and take things one logical step at a time.
One. Living sister taxa.
The closest tested sister taxa to bats here (Fig. 1) are pangolins and colugos (flying lemurs) in order of increasing distance. The origin of bats and pangolins has remained a traditional enigma. Like the origin of pterosaurs and Longisquama, the surprise is, they are most closely related to each other, despite their current differences.
Two. Ancestral taxa
Th bat/colugo/pangolin clade had its genesis near the original dichotomy of placental mammals, when Carnivora split off from all others. At the next dichotomy the bat/colugo/pangolin clade split off from all others. So this clade is not far from an ancestral clades with living genera. Monodelphis, the short-tailed opossum today restricted to South America, nests just outside of all mammals with a placenta. Nandinia, the African palm civet, is a basal member of the Carnivora, somewhat larger than its Mesozoic forebearers.
Three. Timing for clade origins
The bat/colugo/pangolin clade had its origin in the Early Jurassic based on the more primitive egg-layers, Megazostrodon, Brasilitherium and Kuehneotherium in the Late Triassic and the much more derived arboreal multituberculate/rodent, Megaconus, in the Middle Jurassic. As you can see, Jurassic mammals remain extremely rare, currently represented only by the likes of Megaconus. Others will, no doubt, be discovered in time.
Four. Arboreality (tree niche)
Some bats, colugos and pangolins live in trees, and so do their last common ancestors, short-tailed opossums and African palm civets.
Five. Climbing trees
Bats no longer have to climb trees because they can fly. Colugos and pangolins both climb trees in a series of symmetrical short hops/extended reaches (colugo video, pangolin video), distinct from palm civets and short-tailed opossums, which put forth one hand at a time, like primates do.
Six. Descending trees.
Bats fly between trees. Colugos glide between trees. Pangolins use their prehensile tail to ease themselves down. The African palm civet drops out of trees in play. It also descends tree trunks like a squirrel, head first.
Most bats, colugos, pangolins, palm civets and short-tailed opossums prefer to be active at night.
Eight. Omnivorous diet
Some bats eat insects, others prefer nectar or hanging fruit. Colugos prefer leaves, shoots, flowers, sap, and fruit. Pangolins eat ants. Palm civets and short-tailed opossums are omnivorous. African palm civets feed by holding their prey in their hand-like front paws, biting it repeatedly and then once dead, swallowing it whole.
Nine. Extradermal membranes
Colugos and bats both have extradermal membranes to their unguals that extend their glides in the former and enable flapping flying in the latter. Such membranes are lost in living pangolins, but the Early Cretaceous pangolin, Zhangheotherium appears to have scale-lined membranes between the elbows and knees. These were overlooked in the original description. The gliding membrane in colugos is fur-covered and camouflaged dorsally, naked underneath. In bats the flying membrane is naked, translucent and never camouflaged.
Ten. Mobile clavicle, interclavicle and scapula
The basal pangolin, Zhangheotherium, has a mobile clavicle-interclavicle and the large scapula rises above the dorsal vertebrae, as in bats, but not colugos.
11. Sprawling femora
Zhangeotherium and bats share sprawling hind limbs, distinct from the more erect hind limbs of most limbed mammals.
12. Silent vs. noisy
African palm civets are noisy. Colugos and pangolins are largely silent. Bats are constantly chirping to one another and (micro-bats only) as part of their sonar attack system.
All current enemies of bats (e.g. birds, snakes) evolved during or after the Late Cretaceous. Jurassic trees might have been a refuge for small early climbing mammals, like colugo, bat and pangolin ancestors. However…the minimally feathered, small theropod dinosaur, Sinosauropteryx, contained the jaws of Zhangheotherium, perhaps caught after descending from the trees or plucked out of lower branches. Certain pterosaurs (e.g. giant anurognathids) might have preyed on arboreal mammals in the Jurassic, but no evidence of this is yet known.
14. Calcaneal spurs
Hurum et al. 2006 originally considered the small spurs found on the calcaneum of Zhangheotherium (Fig. 2) similar to venom spurs found on the platypus, Ornithorhynchus. Phylogenetic bracketing indicates the closer homolog is with the basal bat, Onychonycteris, which has longer calcaneal spurs framing a trailing uropatagium.
15. Newborns and mothers
All basal placental mammals give birth to helpless newborns that ride with the mother until mature enough to go out on its own. Monodelphis demonstrates a primitive version of this, protecting its ten young with lateral flaps of skin (Fig. 3). Carnivore mothers make nests for newborns (2-4 for African palm civets), but colugo, bat and pangolin mothers take their one or two babies everywhere they go, like marsupial mothers do. Zhangheotherium might have been fossilized with several newborns. (Fig. 4) and extradermal membranes between elbows and knees, as in bats and colugos. As we know from colugos, these extradermal membranes in basal pangolins (and Chriacus?) likely formed a playpen or nursery for developing young riding beneath their mother during the earliest stages of development.
16. Curling (flexing the spine)
Mother opossums, palm civets, colugos, bats and pangolins are able to curl their spines so much that the mother’s mouth is able to assist wiggling newborns climb to the abdominal nipples. This curling ability is co-opted by pangolins as they defend themselves by rolling into a tight ball and by bats that catch prey in their tail before curling up to bite the victim as it is brought close to the jaws. Higher mammals lose the ability to curl ventrally in this manner. Humans and other primates have a limited ability to do this. Instead they use their hands. More derived mammals with stiffer backs have more developed newborns.
17. Upside-down vs. right-side up nursery for the young
Colugos may rest right-side up (preferring to hang from below a slightly leaning tree trunk) or upside down hanging by all fours beneath a horizontal branch. When doing so the mother’s extradermal membranes form walls making a protective nursery for the young ones.
By contrast, bats rest up-side down, sometimes hanging by only one locked foot. To fly bats simply release this foot lock, then plummet and start flapping. Bat membranes also provide a protective nursery for their young as they cling to their mothers’ chest and her wings fold over them.
Nowadays pangolins roll into a ball while nursing their young. Later in life, babies ride on the mother’s back and tail when able to do so. Zhangheotherium (Fig. 4) appears to have provided a colugo-like, but scale-lined membrane nursery for several growing babies. The late-surviving pre-bat, Chriacus (Fig. 5), likely did the same, based on phylogenetic bracketing.
Short-tailed opossums and African palm civets use their claws to climb trees and grab prey and fruit, bringing it to the mouth. So do basal primates. Colugos, bats and pangolins use their larger, curved claws principally to hang from trees, though living pangolins have co-opted their large claws to dig out ant and termite nests from trees and underground.
19. Distance vs. accuracy
Colugos leap and turn away from their tree trunk base in order to launch themselves into a glide. Can they do this while hanging beneath a branch? I don’t know. With their long limbs, colugos can just leap (without gliding) across gaps of 5m or more. With limbs extended, they can glide for 136m at 10m/second. Gliding is good for a quick escape from predators, and access to patches of food that are otherwise inaccessible. It does not save them energy to glide, let along climb back to a gliding height.
Bats drop from trees, then fly wherever they please, typically landing upside down on another high branch or cavern roof. The origin of bat flight enabled by flapping hyper-elongated webbed fingers is the key question here, and it is answered by combining all of the above numbered traits.
Before bats could fly Jurassic pre-bats had to climb trees, probably like colugos and pangolins do (see #5 above), before standing bipedally, but upside-down, on a horizontal branch. Why would they do that? To prepare to dive bomb insects on and in the leaf litter below. Here is where sonar became valuable, detecting insects in the leaf litter at night. Here is where the leaf litter became valuable, cushioning the early awkward landings of small dive-bombing pre-bats. Here is where flapping, even with small hands around colugo-like dermal membranes became valuable, at first in panic, then in gradually learning how to better direct the fall to cover the prey below. (By analogy birds flap their wings vigorously while dropping to slow their descent.)
Upon landing the extended pre-bat nursery membranes ‘put a lid’ on the prey. Then, curling the tooth-line jaws toward the tail and the tail toward the jaws (see #16 above) spelled doom for the captured food item. Over time, larger fingers made better flapping parachutes. Ultimately flapping bats learned how to hover before diving bombing their prey, like owls do. Later, after further development, bats gained the power and morphology to enable flight, slowly at first, then better and better to escape ground-dwelling predators and avoid having to climb a tree for the next attack. Only later did bats learn to use their sonar and flying skills on flying insects.
So what began as a small pouch, then a larger nursery membrane for bat and colugo infants became a killing zone for bat prey on the ground, another example of co-opting an old trait for a new behavior in derived taxa. Distinct from birds and pterosaurs, which used their nascent flapping behavior to ascend tree trunks to escape predators, create threat displays and slow their descents from branches, bats used their nascent flapping ability only to slow and direct their descent from branches. Distinct from colugos, which glided for distance, bats dropped for accuracy. Distance came later, after flight developed.
Remember the fall need not be far at first. Conifers can have very low branches and leaf litter can be a soft cushion for a mouse-sized mammal. Graduating slowly to higher branches provides bats a wider ‘field-of-view’ for their slowly developing sonar, and more time to develop flapping. Bat hind limbs are not long or heavily muscled. They are not good at leaping, like colugos.
Fruit eating bats could not have developed until flowering and fruit-bearing trees developed, later in the Cretaceous. The LRT and the fossil record indicates that fruit-eating bats are derived relative to smaller insect-eating bats. So sonar-emitting apparently was lost in fruit-eating bats, rather than never a part of their lineage. The great variation now seen in sonar-emitting bat morphology was likely developed during and after the Cretaceous, based on the current fossil record. I think we’ll find fully volant fossil bats in the Cretaceous someday.
I happened upon this idea while watching a pigeon descend from a roofline to a balcony beneath it and wondered if accuracy was more important for bats, while distance was more important for colugos. That distinction seems to be the key driver in both clades. In any case, it is important that any proposed scenario be viable at every point during the gradual evolution of new traits and behaviors. In this case, developing flapping forelimbs had to originate with a bipedal configuration, even it inverted. Developing sonar had to originate from simply listening to nocturnal insects and other small prey rustling in the leaf litter, not far below, gradually getting better in those families that randomly had slightly better skills once dive-bombing and trapping became the method for predation.
20. Bat ontogeny
Recapitulates this phylogenetic scenario. The fingers elongate last.
21. Solitary vs. communal
Colugos and pangolins are solitary. So are African palm civets except when food is plentiful. Bats are communal, whether nesting in trees or caves. According to Kerth 2008, “Variable dispersal patterns, complex olfactory and acoustic communication, flexible context-related interactions, striking cooperative behaviors, and cryptic colony structures in the form of fission-fusion systems have been documented. tropical bats often form groups year-round, whereas sociality in temperate-zone species is sometimes restricted to certain times of the year. In most species, females form so-called maternity colonies to rear their young communally, whereas males are solitary, form groups of their own, or join female groups. In only a few species are both sexes solitary, meeting only to mate.”
Kerth concludes, “None of the three factors that I identify as important for the evolution of sociality in bats (ecological constraints, physiological demands, and demographic traits) can fully explain the frequency and diversity of group living in bats.”
22. Soles of the feet oriented opposite to those of most mammals
Distinct from most mammals, the knees of bats are splayed laterally, which should extend the toes laterally. However, the ankle is rotated another 90º producing a foot in which the soles are ventral during flight and while hanging. In the case of long-legged fish-eating bats, the feet help bring captured fish back to the mouth.
Why do bats hang upside down?
Without a phylogenetic or deep-time perspective, the following video is the best answer current bat workers can provide:
Bats are not using their wings to cool off.
A recent heat wave killed many fruit bats. They fell dead out of the trees (see below). None were creating a cooling breeze with their wings or extending their wings in a cooling fashion, like elephants sometimes do. Microbats that live in caves never have this problem.
Bat wings notes:
- Finger flexibility during flight varies greatly in bats.
- The flight stroke is otherwise bird-like with elbows raised above the back, nearly meeting at the midline, for maximum power at low airspeed, or less so for cruising at higher airspeeds.
- The large fingers do nothing else but push air for thrust and lift. They are not extended to cool the bat, nor do they extend or flash during courtship.
- Bat fingers hyper flex at the wrist to tuck away the flight membrane and reduce its surface area when not in use, as in pterosaurs and birds. When flexed they do little but envelope the bat and its clinging young.
- Zhangheotherium was originally considered a symmetrodont mammal, but its teeth seems to converge with archaeocete whales in this regard. The reappearance of a more primitive symmetrodont molar shape is here considered an atavism in the evolution of toothlessness in both certain odontocetes and pangolins by convergence.
- The uncoiled cochlea of highly derived Zhangheotherium and multituberculates, has been traditionally considered a trait that nests these taxa in more basal branches of the mammal family tree. Here, in the LRT, these traits appear to be neotonous or atavistic developments that, taken alone, tend to confuse systematics. No traits should ever be taken alone to determine systematics. That would be ‘pulling a Larry Martin.’
- The initial splitting up of Pangaea in the Early Jurassic gave the previously dry climate a more lush, subtropical parade of cycads, conifers, ginkgoes and tree ferns. So there were plenty of standing and fallen trees for early mammals to gambol upon, learning how to climb and leap. The forest floor was likely cushioned with a carpet of leaves and fronds to absorb accidental falls and hunger-driven dive bombs mediated by fluttering pre-wings and large membranes co-opted for eventual flight.
Video showing a bat descending on a mouse in leaf litter appears here.
Byrnes, Libby, Lim & Spence. 2011. Gliding saves time but not energy in Malayan colugos. Journal of Experimental Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1242/jeb.052993
Hurum JH, Luo Z-X and Kielan-Jaworowska Z 2006. Were mammals originally venomous? Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 51(1): 1–11.
Kerth G 2008. Causes and Consequences of Sociality in Bats. BioScience, Volume 58, Issue 8, 1 September 2008, Pages 737–746, https://doi.org/10.1641/B580810