Panama Canal expansion rewrites history of world’s most ecologically diverse bats

Photo of bat.

The two jaw fragments are the oldest bat fossils from Central America.

Most bats patrol the night sky in search of insects. New World leaf-nosed bats take a different approach. Among the more than 200 species of leaf-nosed bats, there are those that hunt insects; drink nectar; eat fruit; munch pollen; suck blood; and prey on frogs, birds, lizards and even other bats. They’re among the world’s most ecologically diverse mammals, and until recently, it was thought they originated in South America.

“The theory that people have proposed is they got into South America early on, where their only competition was from insect-eating bats. So they evolved a bunch of different feeding strategies,” said Gary Morgan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History.

A new discovery suggests the story may be more complicated. In an article published by the Journal of Mammalian Evolution, Morgan and his colleagues describe the oldest-known leaf-nosed bat fossils, which were found along the banks of the Panama Canal. They’re also the oldest bat fossils from Central America, preserved 20-million years ago when Panama and the rest of North America were separated from southern landmass by a seaway at least 120 miles wide.

Based on these and other fossils, Morgan thinks previous studies may have singled out the wrong continent as the birthplace of leaf-nosed bats.

“We think they may have had a northern origin.”

Read more here.

Jerald Pinson February 20, 2024