Bat Macroevolution

The weird, wild and wonderful world of bat diversity
(Image shows a variety of bat crania, coloured to denote family relationships)

Bats are among the most diverse groups of mammals, with more than 1300 species world wide. My postdoctoral research in the Santana lab at the University of Washington has focused on the evolution of skull shape and bite force across this remarkable, global radiation. Skull shapes vary widely across bats, from elongate to snub nosed, faces that stretch upwards or downwards, stretching tall with massive crests or so flattened they look crushed, and even some with cleft palates, strange floating pre-maxilla, nasal domes and other strange bumps, divots and protrusions.

How did bats come to possess such an amazing variety of skull shapes? I have been using shape data collected from CT scans of skulls from more than 200 species, to understand the evolution of the cranium and mandible. In a paper currently under review, I used phylogenetic comparative methods to examine changes in shape evolution within the skull, and showed that different ecological pressures have impacted the diversification of the bat skull at different times and in different ways. Early skull evolution was dominated by shape changes associated with echolocation, while later diversification was more strongly influenced by dietary factors. The putative adaptive radiation in New World Leaf-Nosed Bats was associated with more changes in skull shape than any other family. The morphological diversification of bats can help us to understand the link between ecological adaptation and evolution.

(Video showing an Egyptian Fruit Bat head, first from contrast-enhanced scanning showing head and neck muscles, and secondly showing the bone, cartilage and vasculature, against a white background)