Cheers to Pollinating Bats for Providing Tequila and So Much More!
Century plants (
sp.) are important for humans. Fibers used for textiles and paper can be obtained from agave leaves, which are an important export in some local Mexican economies. The juice from
is used for tequila and exported worldwide.
We can thank long-nosed bats (
spp.) for pollinating century plants. With a long tongue and muzzle, the long-nosed bat is well-adapted to feeding on the nectar and pollen in agave flowers. Plants specifically pollinated by bats open their flowers at night and usually have a strong scent. While the bat is feeding on the pollen and nectar, pollen grains become stuck in the bat’s fur and are transferred to other plants as the bat forages for food.
In fact, they are considered mutualists because century plants and long-nosed bats have co-evolved to benefit each other. The pollinator-plant relationship between the long-nosed bat and the century plant is so specialized that research shows one may not be able to survive without the other. If the plant population declines without the bats, then other pollinator populations, such as bees, moths, birds, and lizards, will decline, too.
The majority of agave plants are now human-planted crops instead of occurring in the wild. Humans planting agave for tequila production creates two major issues: 1) they are cutting the stalks before they have a chance to reproduce, and 2) they are planting genetic clones of agave plants, so the plants do not have to reproduce naturally. These problems are significant for the bats because they eliminate flower production but also increase the risk for plant diseases.
As with many bat species and other pollinators, the long-nosed bats are declining due to habitat destruction. Long-nosed bats are migratory and need a constant supply of food along the migratory corridor. Two of the bat species are already on the Endangered Species List.
Conservation of the wild agave is critical for the survival on the plant and the long-nosed bats. Currently, conservation programs are encouraging agave growers to help protect the bats and the genetics of the agave plant. For instance, the Tequila Interchange Project recommends allowing 5% of the cultivated agave plants to flower. While 5% doesn't sound like much, this percentage can make a significant difference for the bats.
Let’s toast to long-nosed bats and the importance of plant-pollinator relationships!