Background: Bats of the family Phyllostomidae show a unique diversity in feeding specializations. This taxon includes species that are highly specialized on insects, blood, small vertebrates, fruits or nectar, and pollen. Feeding specialization is accompanied by morphological, physiological and behavioural adaptations. Several attempts were made to resolve the phylogenetic relationships within this family in order to reconstruct the evolutionary transitions accompanied by nutritional specialization. Nevertheless, the evolution of nectarivory remained equivocal.
Results: Phylogenetic reconstructions, based on a concatenated nuclear-and mitochondrial data set, revealed a paraphyletic relationship of nectarivorous phyllostomid bats. Our phylogenetic reconstructions indicate that the nectarivorous genera Lonchophylla and Lionycteris are closer related to mainly frugivorous phyllostomids of the subfamilies Rhinophyllinae, Stenodermatinae, Carolliinae, and the insectivorous Glyphonycterinae rather than to nectarivorous bats of the Glossophaginae. This suggests an independent origin of morphological adaptations to a nectarivorous lifestyle within Lonchophyllinae and Glossophaginae. Molecular clock analysis revealed a relatively short time frame of about ten million years for the divergence of subfamilies.
Conclusions: Our study provides strong support for diphyly of nectarivorous phyllostomids. This is remarkable, since their morphological adaptations to nutrition, like elongated rostrums and tongues, reduced teeth and the ability to use hovering flight while ingestion, closely resemble each other. However, more precise examinations of their tongues (e.g. type and structure of papillae and muscular innervation) revealed levels of difference in line with an independent evolution of nectarivory in these bats.