Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. So imagine this. It's a hot day. Someone offers you a cold lemonade. But there's one condition. You can drink it only using your tongue. No lips touching the glass, no straw. It's what bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds do when they slurp nectar from flowers. And now scientists have discovered a species of bat whose tongue is also a particularly fancy nectar scoop. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The bats live in Central and South America. They're roughly two inches long and they spend their nights going from flower to flower.

CALLY HARPER: They hover for just a few seconds in font of the flower corolla and then they probe their tongue deep into the base of the flower tube and soak up nectar.

CHATTERJEE: Cally Harper is at Brown University and an author of the new study. She says when the bat sticks its tongue out, that tongue is about twice the length of the animal's head.

HARPER: Its common name is the Pallas' long-tongued bat.

CHATTERJEE: Now the challenge for all nectar feeders is to slurp up as much nectar as possible in the shortest possible time. That's because hovering over each flower takes a lot of energy. And to get enough food they have to visit many flowers in a single night. Harper says nature has come up with a variety of tongue designs.

HARPER: Hummingbirds have these bifurcated tongues that almost act like tweezers to tweeze up small droplets of liquid. And for butterflies, their tongues actually function more like straws, where they have little pores at the tip of their tongue where nectar flows through those pores and then up the tube of the tongue.

CHATTERJEE: Harper wanted to know how the Pallas' long-tongued bats did it and decided to film them in the laboratory using a high-speed video camera. She knew their tongues were covered with little hairs. So she watched what happened to those hairs as the bats reached out for food.

HARPER: And then very close to when the tongue is maximally extended, these hairs become erect. And when that happens, a space is created between each of the rows of hairs on the tongue tip. And the nectar is loaded into each one of those spaces.

CHATTERJEE: It's like the bat's tongue is working like a mop.

BETH BRAINERD: Not a sponge mop, but a stringy mop.

CHATTERJEE: Beth Brainerd of Brown University co-authored the study. She says it turns out blood pumping into the hairs makes them stand on end.

BRAINERD: The mechanism is like an active mop that's opening up and making more space for this liquid nectar to be collected.

CHATTERJEE: Now, bees and even cats have hairs on their tongues. But Kurt Schwenk, who's an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut, says he's never seen tongue hairs used in this way.

KURT SCHWENK: What made it so cool and so exciting is this dynamic attribute they have of popping out when the blood pressure gets high enough.

CHATTERJEE: He says the new study, published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows how underappreciated tongues are as an organ.

SCHWENK: When you start looking at tongues in different animal groups, you start seeing this amazing diversity of form and function that I think would shock most people.

CHATTERJEE: And for that matter, Schwenck says even the human tongue is more remarkable than we give it credit for.

SCHWENK: I'd suggest that people, in the privacy of their own home, look in the mirror and stick your tongue out and start examining the incredible movements you can make with your tongue.

CHATTERJEE: Not so great for slurping up lemonade without a straw, maybe, but perfect for the kinds of food we eat, and of course, all the languages we speak. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.