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You Know About the Birds and the Bees, but Guess What These Bats Do

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Science|You Know About the Birds and the Bees, but Guess What These Bats Do

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/20/science/bats-sex-cloacal-kiss.html

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Trilobites

Bats have long been known for unusual forms of sexual reproduction, and a new study adds another surprise to the behaviors of the winged mammals.

Serotine bats, found in woodlands and the attics of old buildings across Europe and Asia, have abnormally long penises that, when erect, are around seven times longer than the female's vagina.Credit...Alona Shulenko

A few years ago, Nicolas Fasel, a biologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and his colleagues developed a fascination with the penises of serotine bats, a species found in woodlands and the attics of old buildings across Europe and Asia.

Serotine bats sport abnormally long penises with wide, heart-shaped heads. When erect, the members are around seven times longer than the female's vagina, and their bulbous heads are seven times wider than the female's vaginal opening.

"We wondered: How does that work? How can they use that for copulation?" Dr. Fasel recalled.

What they discovered has overturned an assumption about mammalian reproduction, namely that procreation must always involve penetration.

In a study, published Monday in the journal Current Biology, Dr. Fassel and his colleagues presented evidence that serotine bats mate without penetration, making them the first mammals known to do so. Instead of using their penises to penetrate their partners, the scientists found, the male bats use them to push their partner's tail membrane out of the way so they can align their openings and engage in contact mating, a behavior similar to one found in birds and known as "cloacal kissing."

To learn how these bats overcome their substantial genital size difference, Dr. Fasel and his colleagues analyzed nearly 100 videos of serotine bats mating. The videos were provided by a bat rehabilitation center in Ukraine and a citizen scientist filming bats in the attic of a church in the Netherlands. The footage revealed a mating strategy unlike any other used by mammals.

While the two bats hang upside down, the male climbs on the female's back and grasps the nape of her neck. Once he has a firm hold, the male will use his erect penis to push the female's tail membrane to the side and probe between her legs until he has located her vulva. The male then presses the heart-shaped head of his penis to the female's vulva and holds it there until the deed is done. While this process took less than an hour for most of the couples the researchers observed, one pair went at it for nearly 13 hours.

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