How bats evolve into scores of species.
Elizabeth Dumont at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Liliana Davalos of Stony Brook University and colleagues compiled large amounts of data on the diet, bite force and skull shape in a family of New World bats, and took advantage of new statistical techniques to date and document changes in the rate of evolution of these traits and the number of species over time.
They investigated why there are so many more species of New World Leaf-Nosed bats, nearly 200, while their closest relatives produced only 10 species over the same period of time.
Most bats are insect feeders, while the New World Leaf-Nosed bats eat nectar, fruit, frogs, lizards and even blood.
One hypothesis is that the evolution of a trait, such as head shape, that gives access to new resources can lead to the rapid evolution of many new species.
"If the availability of fruit provided the ecological opportunity that, in the presence of anatomical innovations that allowed eating the fruit, led to a significant increase in the birth of new species, then skull morphology should predict both diet and bite force," they said.
They found support for these predictions by analyzing thousands of evolutionary trees of more than 150 species, measuring over 600 individual bat skulls of 85 species, testing bite force in over 500 individual bats from 39 species in the field and examining thousands of scat samples to identify the bats' diets.
They found that the emergence of a new skull shape in New World Leaf-Nosed bats about 15 million years ago led to an explosion of many new bat species.
The new shape was a low, broad skull that allowed even small bats to produce the strong bite needed to eat hard fruits.
The rate of birth of new species jumped as this new shape evolved, and this group of bats quickly increased the proportion of fruit in their diet. Change in shape slowed once this new skull had evolved.
It can be difficult for evolutionary biologists to demonstrate that traits related to anatomical changes, also called "morphological innovations" such as a new skull shape, give certain groups a survival advantage when new food sources, such as hard fruits, become available.
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. (ANI)
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