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Primitive Early Eocene bat from Wyoming and the evolution of flight and echolocation

Nature volume 451, pages 818821 (14 February 2008) | Download Citation


Bats (Chiroptera) represent one of the largest and most diverse radiations of mammals, accounting for one-fifth of extant species1. Although recent studies unambiguously support bat monophyly2,3,4 and consensus is rapidly emerging about evolutionary relationships among extant lineages5,6,7,8, the fossil record of bats extends over 50 million years, and early evolution of the group remains poorly understood5,7,8,9. Here we describe a new bat from the Early Eocene Green River Formation of Wyoming, USA, with features that are more primitive than seen in any previously known bat. The evolutionary pathways that led to flapping flight and echolocation in bats have been in dispute7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18, and until now fossils have been of limited use in documenting transitions involved in this marked change in lifestyle. Phylogenetically informed comparisons of the new taxon with other bats and non-flying mammals reveal that critical morphological and functional changes evolved incrementally. Forelimb anatomy indicates that the new bat was capable of powered flight like other Eocene bats, but ear morphology suggests that it lacked their echolocation abilities, supporting a ‘flight first’ hypothesis for chiropteran evolution. The shape of the wings suggests that an undulating gliding–fluttering flight style may be primitive for bats, and the presence of a long calcar indicates that a broad tail membrane evolved early in Chiroptera, probably functioning as an additional airfoil rather than as a prey-capture device. Limb proportions and retention of claws on all digits indicate that the new bat may have been an agile climber that employed quadrupedal locomotion and under-branch hanging behaviour.

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We thank I. Morrison for preparing the holotype specimen of Onychonycteris finneyi; A. Aase and H. Galliano for help in obtaining photographs and casts of the paratype; B. Miljour and P. Wynne for their assistance with figures; B. Boyle for photographs; and P. Myers, L. Grande, W. Simpson, M. Engstrom, J. Eger, S. Woodward, S. Schaal, G. Storch, N. Micklich, D. Lunde, E. Westwig and C. Norris for access to specimens. Students sponsored by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at the University of Michigan were involved in data acquisition and compilation. Funding was provided by the United States National Science Foundation and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG.

Author information


  1. American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, New York 10024, USA

    • Nancy B. Simmons
  2. Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen’s Park, Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C6, Canada

    • Kevin L. Seymour
  3. Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, Senckenberganlage 25, D-60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • Jörg Habersetzer
  4. Museum of Paleontology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1079, USA

    • Gregg F. Gunnell


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nancy B. Simmons.

Morphological data used in phylogenetic analyses are deposited in MorphoBank and can be obtained at http://morphobank.geongrid.org/permalink/?P104.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-3, Supplementary Figures 1-10 with Legends and additional references.

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