Driving factors for the evolution of species-specific echolocation call design in new world free-tailed bats (Molossidae)

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Abstract

Phylogeny, ecology, and sensorial constraints are thought to be the most important factors influencing echolocation call design in bats. The Molossidae is a diverse bat family with a majority of species restricted to tropical and subtropical regions. Most molossids are specialized to forage for insects in open space, and thus share similar navigational challenges. We use an unprecedented dataset on the echolocation calls of 8 genera and 18 species of New World molossids to explore how habitat, phylogenetic relatedness, body mass, and prey perception contribute to echolocation call design. Our results confirm that, with the exception of the genus Molossops, echolocation calls of these bats show a typical design for open space foraging. Two lines of evidence point to echolocation call structure of molossids reflecting phylogenetic relatedness. First, such structure is significantly more similar within than among genera. Second, except for allometric scaling, such structure is nearly the same in congeneric species. Despite contrasting body masses, 12 of 18 species call within a relatively narrow frequency range of 20 to 35 kHz, a finding that we explain by using a modeling approach whose results suggest this frequency range to be an adaptation optimizing prey perception in open space. To conclude, we argue that the high variability in echolocation call design of molossids is an advanced evolutionary trait allowing the flexible adjustment of echolocation systems to various sensorial challenges, while conserving sender identity for social communication. Unraveling evolutionary drivers for echolocation call design in bats has so far been hampered by the lack of adequate model organisms sharing a phylogenetic origin and facing similar sensorial challenges. We thus believe that knowledge of the echolocation call diversity of New World molossid bats may prove to be landmark to understand the evolution and functionality of species-specific signal design in bats.

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Jung, K., Molinari, J., & Kalko, E. K. V. (2014). Driving factors for the evolution of species-specific echolocation call design in new world free-tailed bats (Molossidae). PLoS ONE, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0085279

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