The tube-lipped nectar bat has the longest tongue relative to its own body compared to any mammal in the world. Now, the tongue of this rare bat, only discovered in Ecuador in 2005, has been filmed for the first time in action.
National Geographic reports the tongue of the Anoura fistulata is one and a half times the length of the mammal’s body. It feeds on the nectar of a particularly musty smelling flower, Centropogon nigricans, which is only open for six days. The nectar of this plant though is down a relatively long tube, requiring a modified tongue in order to reach it.
Here’s National Geographic’s play-by-play of how it happens:
In a close-up, the animal’s tongue slithers, snakelike, down the flower’s long neck. When the tongue reaches the pool of sweet nectar at the bottom, the tip transforms, becoming suddenly prickly as hairlike structures called papillae extend outward.
“Just before the bat retracts the tongue, the [papillae] stick straight out sideways,” said [Nathan] Muchhala, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln [who helped find the bat in 2005.] “That maximizes the surface area, allowing it to act like a mop and sop up as much nectar as possible.”
Given the structure of the plant, this bat is the only species known to help pollinate it. To store what National Geographic describes as a “super tongue” in its own body, it has to retract it into its ribcage.
In the video, National Geographic states if the bat were human size with a proportionally similar tongue, it would be nearly three meters long.
Watch the footage, which aired for the first time on National Geographic’s “Untamed Americas” Sunday:
So how were the filmmakers able to capture the bat and its unusually long mouth parts in such detail without disturbing it? They poked a small hold in the tube of the flower and placed a camera there.
Muchhala said at first the bats were disturbed by the humans but eventually got used to them and flew freely to drink from the temping flower. They became so comfortable in fact that Muchhala said “you come into the tent and they come up to you and will land on your hand looking for nectar.”