Science

Bats Can Get More Nectar ... Through Tongue Erections

By Matthew Dougherty , May 08, 2013 07:14 PM EDT
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There is a species of bat that gets an erection of sorts with its tongue that allows it to gather nectar and feed in an easier way.

Blood rushes to the tongue of the Pallas’ long-tongued bat that effectively turns it into a mop, allowing the bat to feed in mid air.

When the blood reaches the tip of the tongue, tiny hair-like follicles swell up and become erect, allowing the bat to sweep up nectar more easily.

The discovery was made through high-speed videos that show the bat feeding on nectar with clearly visible hairs on the tip of its tongue.

"We've known of these elongated hairs, or papillae, at the tongue tip for a long time. But it was really only when we looked at them with color, high-speed videos that we could see they actually changed their orientation and rose up perpendicular to the tongue during feeding, and that it was due to the flow of blood into the tongue,” Brown University study co-author Cally J. Harper said.

To get sugary nectar, bats must hover over flowers, not unlike the hummingbird. This uses a lot of energy, and even taps into the sugar they just ingested through nectar to stay afloat. The new discovery concerning their tongue allows them to get more sugar at a faster rate.

The bat's tongue can grow up to 50 percent once the blood begins rushing in. The tongue starts out the normal pink color and goes to a darker red once the blood is stiffening the hairs on the tip.

Harper went on to say that it is possible that the design of the tongue of these bats could be used for tiny surgical robots in the future.

"Because the tongue is flexible, and can simultaneously increase length and change its surface configuration similar designs might be used to open up blood vessels or regions of the small intestines during surgery."

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