The evolution of bat vestibular systems in the face of potential antagonistic selection pressures for flight and echolocation


The vestibular system maintains the body’s sense of balance and, therefore, was probably subject to strong selection during evolutionary transitions in locomotion. Among mammals, bats possess unique traits that place unusual demands on their vestibular systems. First, bats are capable of powered flight, which in birds is associated with enlarged semicircular canals. Second, many bats have enlarged cochleae associated with echolocation, and both cochleae and semicircular canals share a space within the petrosal bone. To determine how bat vestibular systems have evolved in the face of these pressures, we used micro-CT scans to compare canal morphology across species with contrasting flight and echolocation capabilities. We found no increase in canal radius in bats associated with the acquisition of powered flight, but canal radius did correlate with body mass in bat species from the suborder Yangochiroptera, and also in non-echolocating Old World fruit bats from the suborder Yinpterochiroptera. No such trend was seen in members of the Yinpterochiroptera that use laryngeal echolocation, although canal radius was associated with wing-tip roundedness in this group. We also found that the vestibular system scaled with cochlea size, although the relationship differed in species that use constant frequency echolocation. Across all bats, the shape of the anterior and lateral canals was associated with large cochlea size and small body size respectively, suggesting differential spatial constraints on each canal depending on its orientation within the skull. Thus in many echolocating bats, it seems that the combination of small body size and enlarged cochlea together act as a principal force on the vestibular system. The two main groups of echolocating bats displayed different canal morphologies, in terms of size and shape in relation to body mass and cochlear size, thus suggesting independent evolutionary pathways and offering tentative support for multiple acquisitions of echolocation.

In PLoS One 8:e61998
James Cotton
James Cotton
Senior Staff Scientist

My research interests are in the genomics, and particularly population genomics of parasites, particularly those that cause neglected tropical diseases