Volume 476 Issue 7358, 4 August 2011

A common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) in flight, photographed in Mexico. These blood-feeding bats have evolved the ability to detect infrared (IR) radiation as a means of locating hot spots on warm-blooded prey. Only three other vertebrate lineages have this 'sixth' sense: three distantly related groups of snakes (pit vipers, pythons and boas). In all cases, the IR sensor is a highly specialized facial structure called the pit organ. In the snakes, a non-heat-sensitive ion channel (vertebrate TRPA1) has become an infrared detector. As reported in this issue, vampire bats use a slightly different molecular mechanism whereby RNA splicing generates a variant of the ubiquitous TRPV1 heat-sensitive channel that is tuned to lower temperatures. Comparison of this channel's gene sequence with the equivalent in other mammals lends support to the hypothesis based on molecular data that these bats are evolutionarily grouped with horses, dogs, cows, moles and dolphins (in the Laurasiatheria superorder), rather than with humans, monkeys and rodents (in the Euarchontoglires) as originally proposed on anatomical criteria. Cover: Barry Mansell/naturepl.com

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