Though natural selection is the driving force behind adaptation to new niches, the research team notes that it can be difficult to identify which features are the targets of selection.
Evolutionary biologist, Elizabeth Dumont, and mechanical engineer, Ian Grosse, of UMass Amherst, with evolutionary biologist, Liliana Dávalos, of Stony Brook University and support from the National Science Foundation, studied the evolutionary histories of the adaptive radiation of New World leaf-nosed bats based on their dietary niches.
According to the group, adaptive radiations, that is, the explosive evolution of species into new ecological niches, have generated much of the biological diversity seen in the world today. “Natural selection is the driving force behind adaptation to new niches, but it can be difficult to identify which features are the targets of selection. This is especially the case when selection was important in the distant past of a group whose living members now occupy very different niches,” they note.
They set out to tackle this by examining almost 200 species of New World leaf-nosed bats that exploit many different food niches: Insects, frogs, lizards, fruit, nectar and even blood. The bats’ skulls of today reflect this dietary diversity. Species with long, narrow snouts eat nectar, while short-faced bats have exceptionally short, wide palates for eating hard fruits. Species that eat other foods have snouts shaped somewhere in between.
She and colleagues built an engineering model of a bat skull that can morph into the shape of any species, and used it to create skulls with all possible combinations of snout length and width. Then they ran engineering analyses on all the models to assess their structural strength and mechanical advantage, a measure of how efficiently and how hard bats can bite.
“Thanks to this new approach,” Dumont says, “we were able to answer our original question about natural selection in the evolution of these bats. It favored the highest mechanical advantage in short-faced bats, which gives them the high bite forces needed to pierce through the hardest figs. Nectar feeders have very low mechanical advantage, which is a trade-off for having long, narrow snouts that fit into the flowers in which they find nectar.”
UMass Amherst News Office
Banner Photo courtesy Dumont research group