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Call of the Bloom

By Susan McGrath
3/1/2014 10:31:52 AM

The following is an excerpt from the March issue of National Geographic Magazine:

Credit: National Geographic

Bats don't just look for flowers. Flowers reflect bat sounds to catch the winged mammals' ears.

Nature's inventiveness knows no bounds. Consider the case of the nectar-drinking bat and the night-flowering vine whose lives intertwine in the lowland tropical forests of Central America.

Glossophaga commissarisi, a tiny, winged mammal with a body no bigger than your thumb, flits among the flowers of Mucuna holtonii, lapping nectar, much as hummingbirds and bumblebees do. In exchange it pollinates the plant. In daylight flowers can flaunt their wares with bright colors such as scarlet and fuchsia, but at night, when even the brightest hues pale to a moonlit silver, Mucuna flowers resort to sound to catch the ear of nectar bats.

Photograph by Merlin D. Tuttle. This flower's shape and exposed position cater to a bat's ears. Plant: Crescentia cujete Bat: Glossophaga commissarisi

Photograph by Merlin D. Tuttle. Merlin Tuttle filleted this flower to document the bat's tongue siphoning nectar as the flower's anthers stamp its forehead with pollen. He photographed wild bats in temporary cages. Plant: Werauhia gladioliflora. Bat: Lonchophylla robusta

Photograph by Merlin D. Tuttle. A sound-deadening backdrop heightens this flower's echoes. As wildlands fall and plants become more isolated, nectar bats show their value: Some carry pollen 30 miles nightly. Plant: Espostoa frutescens Bat: Anoura geoffroyi

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