As sweet as the reward is, it isn’t easy being a nectar-feeder. Bats, hummingbirds, and bees face the difficult task of sipping as much nectar as possible from a tiny floral tube, all while hovering delicately in the air. And since hovering is such an energy-demanding task, the more efficiently these animals can slurp up nectar, the likely they are to get something out of a visit to a flower.
Hummingbirds have evolved a creative adaptation to deal with this challenge: the tips of their long tongues are bifurcated, or split. During feeding, nectar is trapped between the two tongue tips and carried into the bird’s mouth. Long-tongued bees have solved the problem in a slightly different way: they have a brush-like structure on the end of their tongue to help lap up nectar. Nectar-feeding bats have similar hairy projections on the end of their tongue, and researchers have long assumed that these were simply static structures that increased the surface area of the tongue to make nectar feeding more efficient.
However, a new study in PNAS suggests that a nectar-feeding bat’s tongue is far more efficient—and more complicated—than scientists previously assumed.