Bat Echo – By Susan McGrath


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
This flower’s shape and exposed position cater to a bat’s ears.
Plant: Crescentia cujete
Bat: Glossophaga commissarisi

Call of the Bloom

Some tropical flowers reflect sound so nectar-seeking bats can find them more easily.

By Susan McGrath
Photograph by Merlin D. Tuttle

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.

At La Selva Biological Station in northern Costa Rica a vigorous old Mucuna has woven a leafy ceiling above a forest clearing and lowered dozens of flowers into the opening on long, green stalks. The flowers dangle at staggered heights in the vaulted clearing like chandeliers in a shadowy ballroom, each palm-size inflorescence a whorl of pale yellow, pea-pod-shaped buds on arched stems.

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