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Study: Tongue erections help bats consume nectar

New research on bats has revealed curious information about how they eat, leading to possible advances for our own species. Cally Harper, a doctoral student at Brown University, along with a team of researchers, set out to better understand how bats use their tongues when lapping up nectar. Scientists have known that they have hairy-looking tongues; the hairs are termed papillae, similar to taste buds in humans. Anatomists have noted blood vessels in the tongue as well.

“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting that there are these enlarged blood vessels and these really specialized papillae,'” Harper told LiveScience. “There’s the possibility that maybe blood flow was used to move these papillae during feeding.”

Dissections of bat tongues seemed to confirm this when sinuses (spaces) were discovered along the sides of the tongue and extending into the papillae. Harper’s team set out to determine whether the papillae moved during feeding.

To study the bats up close, Harper and her team set up high-speed video cameras around feeding stations to attract nectar-eating bat Glossophaga soricina. Bats have keen memory and return to successful feeding spots, so all the team had to do was to set up the feeders and wait.

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When reviewing the videos, the team was able to see up close the action of the bats’ tongues during feeding. The papillae laid flat at first, but as the tongue reached as far as it could the hairs stood on end and the tongue became redder, indicating that blood flow had increased.

“The hairs separate from each other, and that creates a little space between each of the rows of hairs on the tongue,” Harper explained. “Each one of those spaces becomes filled with nectar.” The action is automatic, allowing the bats to absorb as much food as possible as quickly as possible. It is likely driven by muscular tension.

Like other animals before them, scientists believe that this new research on bat tongues could possibly be used in human engineering. Scientists have previously studied snail shells, gecko feet, and insects to inspire different human developments, such as stronger body armor (snails).

“These bat tongues are very flexible, and they’re soft,” explained Harper. “They could be really useful [inspiration] in bending around the curves of blood vessels and intestines, but also, they may minimize damage to some of those soft tissue structures.” Researchers think that bat tongues could be used as inspiration to create gentler surgical tools, something that would have high impact on the human race.