Mislabeled in history as birds or flying mice, bats are a completely unique group of mammals that form a remarkable 20 percent of mammal species worldwide as the second largest order of the class Mammalia after rodents. Bats defy the statistical norm of mammals as land-bound or ocean-going, and birds as the primary flighted warm-blooded animals. While bats are bizarre enough as flying mammals, there are more particularly freakish species among their ranks that will stretch your imagination and keep you awake at night. We discover freaky fliers, including a bat that captures fish, a clinging bat with suction cup feet, and the eerily beautiful ghost bat…
10. Tube-lipped Nectar Bat
Hailing from Bolivia, the uniquely well adapted Tube-lipped Nectar Bat Anoura fistulata is a freak of mammalian evolution only known from three specimens. The remarkable bat was first discovered in a University of Miami expedition to Ecuador in 2003. Measuring just over 2.2 inches in length, the Tube-lipped Nectar Bat boasts a tongue measuring 3.3 inches in length, or 150 percent of the bat’s body length. While most mammals have their tongues anchored in the back of their mouth, the Tube-lipped Nectar Bat has a remarkably unique physiology. Evolving to give the bat access to nectar contained within deep flowers, the enormous tongue is the longest tongue in relation to its size of any mammal, anchored in the bat’s ribcage.
The placement of the tongue anchor point in the sternum resolves an important predicament faced by this bat. The Tube-lipped Nectar Bat requires a long tongue to feed on nectar which requires space to “store” the tongue. However, the bat feeds on hard, crunchy insects in addition to nectar, which requires a powerful bite to crunch through hard exoskeletons and get access to protein. If the bat had a long snout accommodate the tongue, leverage and biting force would be greatly reduced compared to the bulldog-like gripping and biting action of a short snout. With its tongue extending from a point between the sternum and the heart, the bat has both “bulldog jaws” to bite insects and an anteater-like tongue to sip nectar.
9. Hammer-headed Bat
Aptly named in both English and Latin, the Hammer-headed bat Hypsignathus monstrosus is the largest bat species in Africa. Brown in color and equipped with secondary finger claws and flexible thumb digits, Hammer-headed Bats inhabit forested areas in Equatorial regions of Africa. The beastly appearance of this strange fruit-eating mega-bat could be compared to a cross between a winged demon and a small dog. In a striking example of significant gender dimorphism, the males have a far more grotesque appearance than females with hanging lips, check pouches, fleshy facial flaps and an enlarged snout and larynx. While ugly to humans, these attributes all evolved in the name of sex appeal and mating.
The enormous “hammer-head” facilitates the production of honking calls by the males as they gather in leks and perform to attract the interest of females, who make aerial passes amongst the displaying males. After selecting a mate, the female will sit beside the male, who responds by emitting a persistent buzzing sound upon being approved by the female as a mate. The wingspan of males may reach just over 38 inches in the largest individuals, with a body length of nearly 1 foot. A weight of just less than one pound may be reached by the largest males. This species is believed to be asymptomatically infected by Ebola virus, but it remains to be determined whether the bat functions as an incidental host or a reservoir.
8. Greater Bulldog Bat
As flying mammals, bats are the last creature you might associate with water. Yet, the Greater Bulldog Bat of Central and South America and the Caribbean is a highly adapted and formidable winged mammal turned fisherman. Equipped with remarkably specialized adaptations for fishing, the Greater Bulldog Bat possesses sharp, rear curving “talons” and a skin pouch placed between the legs that assist it in scooping up fish straight from the water. The Greater Bulldog Bat is maneuverable, precise and also well named, with formidable, and skin folds that lend a bulldog-like appearance. Hamster-like cheek pouches assist the bat in holding prey in its mouth.
Measuring up to five inches in length, the Greater Bulldog Bat have a disproportionately huge wingspan measuring up to 3 feet, making it one of the largest bat species in the Americas and giving it the bulk and power to seize fish from the water. A voracious eater, this bat fearsomely toothy bat with prominent canines may consume up to 40 individual fish in a night of fishing. Diverse in its habitat choices, the Greater Bulldog Bat may be found patrolling for prey wherever there are fish bearing waters with sufficient nearby roosting accommodations. Ponds, estuaries, wetlands and even coastal lagoons may be selected as fishing sites. If the bat ends up in the water, it can not only swim, but even get back in the air for the next round through a water takeoff.
7. Spix’s Disk-winged Bat
Suction cups may seem to be a quintessential human innovation, or a unique adaptation seen in squid. Yet, a bat with working suction cups on its hands and feet is both an eerie idea that will cling to your imagination and a reality that evolution has brought into the riches of biological diversity. The remarkable Spix’s Disk-winged Bat Thyroptera tricolor of Central and South American rainforest environments is a remarkable creature displaying the function of suction cups as a means of taking advantage of otherwise unusable smooth, rainforest leaves roosting environments that also offer a refuge from predators and an easy escape in the event of disturbance.
Looking just like a man-made suction cup, fleshy cups are affixed to the thumbs and hind feet of the Spix’s Disk-winged Bat and allow them to hold onto smooth surfaces. Given their shape by cartilaginous material, the cups are frequently groomed by the bats to keep them in prime condition, while suction enhancing moisture is enhanced through sweat secreted by glands discharging into the edges of the disk. The 0.15 ounce bats control their suction superpowers through muscular means as they grip to the surface of leaves, able to hang securely in all possible positions. Encouraging the bat to roost in a glass container allows the suction effect to be seen firsthand.
6. California Leaf-nosed Bat
Being accidentally brushed by a bat is a fear that instinctively arises in many humans, but the California Leaf-nosed Bat is especially well equipped to hear you and avoid you far before you are aware of its presence. With a gargoyle-like appearance, the California Leaf-nosed Bat Macrotus californicus displays remarkably extreme body proportions that give it auditory superpowers. Measuring just 2.4 inches in length, the California Leaf-nosed Bat has grossly over-sized ears that are 1 inch or more long. That is well over a third of its body length, but worth carrying around due to the exceptional hearing capabilities that they provide.
With a wingspan of around 1 foot, this awkward looking bat actually holds the record for having the greatest in-flight maneuverability among North American bat species. In contrast to other bat species, the California Leaf-nosed Bat is almost hummingbird-like, standing out with its hovering capabilities included in its performance envelope. This flight mode allows the bat to feed by seizing insects from the ground, advancing from one hunting spot to the next. While this species is maneuverable, nature is full of trade-offs. Lacking the long-distance endurance to migrate, the bats neither migrate nor hibernate, but take advantage of geothermally warmed roost sites to survive the winter.
5. Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox
Bats have a tendency to look like goblins and gremlins of the night sky, but king of bats, the Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox Acerodon jubatus could almost pass for a pet dog with wings. Restricted to the Philippines, the Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox is the largest bat in the world with an impressive and well patterned fur coat. Meticulous in their self-care, Giant Golden-crowned Flying Foxes bath frequently to clean their bodies and fur through an intricate and remarkable self-washing ritual that should be witnessed first-hand to be fully comprehended. With their enormous, leathery looking wings, the flying foxes bend and gather up water from a pool and then douse themselves thoroughly, keeping clean and fresh in the process.
Roosting in rainforest and cave environments, these doglike, furry and colorful bats may weigh in at 2.6 pounds with a wingspan extending up to 5.6 feet. The wings are wrapped around the body like a cloak while the bats roost, typically hanging from rainforest vegetation or a foothold in a cave. Unfortunately, these fruit eating mega bats are at risk of extinction due to human predation and habitat disturbance. While they do not pose a threat to humans through aggression, they should be handled with caution by researchers due to their potential to carry disease. An endangered keystone species these bats act as distributor of tree seeds, thus playing a valuable role in regenerating forests.
4. Pied Bat
If pandas had wings, they might look something like a certain small African bat species. The forests of Ghana, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan are home to a stunning and rare bat now known as the Pied Bat Niumbaha superba. Also called the badger bat, the strikingly patterned bat recalls a winged panda bear in its bold pattern that represents a sharp contrast to the typical drab brown small bat. Originally becoming known to science in 1939, the exceedingly rare species remained something of a mystery for decades. The only member of its genus, the 2013 collection of what was just the 5th ever specimen collected for this species allowed closer examination.
The research ultimately revealed that the spectacular looking creature deserved its own genus, named Niumbaha, which means “rare” or “unusual” in the Zande Language. Found to be completely unique in its physical characteristics and evolutionary history and not only distinctive in its appearance, the harmless but eye-stopping bat was moved from the genus Glauconycteris to the custom created genus Niumbaha. While seldom found, the wide distribution of this striking bat suggests many more sightings may await the lucky and diligent observer.
3. Northern Ghost Bat
While many beastly bat species such as vampire or hammer-headed bats are demonically grotesque, the Northern Ghost Bat Diclidurus albus makes for such a convincing real life ghost that it might as well be wrapped in a white robe and sent out on a Halloween errand to spook the unsuspecting. A beautiful contrast to the average drab small bat species, the spectacular Northern Ghost Bat is almost angelic in appearance with its snow white fur. Native to Mexico to Eastern Brazil, the Northern Ghost Bat also inhabits a selection of Caribbean Islands including Trinidad.
In support of its ghostly status, the bat retains mystique by being not only rare but also exceedingly hard to capture, even by the most determined and experienced researchers.
Northern Ghost Bats fly at such high elevations either far above or within the rainforest canopy that ensure they usually elude mist nets placed by researchers for capture and inspection. While beautiful in appearance, this ghostly rainforest bat is not a fruit eater but a predator of insects, which it dispatches with fearsome, somewhat forward angled canine teeth adapted to piercing arthropod exoskeletons. Being little studied, a number of mysteries still surround this species with a flesh colored face and black, gooey looking eyes that stare muse-like at any observer lucky enough to encounter an individual.
2. Madagascar Sucker-footed Bats
While the Spix’s Disk-winged Bat is a true suction user, two little known Madagascar bat species known as the Madagascar Sucker-footed bat Myzopoda aurita and Western Sucker-footed Bat Myzopoda schliemanni are actually profoundly misnamed. Instead, these bats represent an entirely different but equally startling evolved means of roosting on smooth plant material. Unlike the truly suction using Spix’s Disk-winged Bat Thyroptera tricolor, the Madagascar Sucker-footed Bats are equipped with disks on their wrists and ankles which secrete a gluey substance which aids them in holding firm to the sides of smooth plant material, particularly the species Ravenala madagascariensis known as the Traveller’s Tree. Equipped with such innovative evolved superpowers, these little bats are not sucker bats but, essentially, a species of glue bats!
Holding to furled up leaves that form tubes well suited to roosting, the bats adhere to the leaves through the surface tension created by secretion of fluid from the bat’s wrist and ankle pads in a mechanism that Canadian evolutionary biologist and Madagascar Sucker-footed bat study author Daniel Riskin compared to wet paper being made to stick to a wind shield. To prove that suction was not involved, this enterprising researcher had the bats roost on metal plates that were peppered with holes, eliminating the potential for suction. Despite a lack of suction, the bats still clung to the smooth metal. While the Madagascar Sucker-footed bat Myzopoda aurita is well established in scientific literature, the discovery of the second species, The Western Sucker-footed Bat Myzopoda schliemanni in north-western Madagascar was fairly recent, being made in 2007.
1. Wrinkle-faced Bat
Too grotesque to imagine as reality, the nightmarish but remarkable Wrinkle-faced Bat Centurio senex of Central America and nearby jurisdictions is a peculiar bat that belongs to its own monotypic genus. Despite its bizarre, wrinkled appearance, the monstrous looking winged mammal with 28 teeth is actually a harmless fruit eater with a penchant for wolfing down mangos and bananas. While the face of this tiny bat is defined by enormous, convoluted wrinkles, the surface of the skin forming these convolutions is eerily smooth and leathery, almost greasy in appearance. To attract females, males do not engage in any dramatic displays but achieve sexual appeal by secreting an odor producing compound from glands located in their chins.
The males are equipped with extra scent glands amongst facial skin folds, which hold and disperse the scent as it is produced. An uncommon bat species throughout its range, the Wrinkle-faced Bat can stretch folds of skin from their chin right over their face, with translucent sections where the eyes are locating letting the bats rest while still remaining able to detect any activity nearby. A uniquely shaped skull adapted to increase available biting force is believed to allow this species to collect nourishment from tougher fruits. With a bite force 20 percent stronger than that of other bats their size, this chomp-ready species gains a survival advantage, especially when food supplies are short.