Aspects of digestion and physiology in Wahlberg's epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi)
Degradation of forest environments in South Africa have greatly affected both the plants and animals that interact with these plants. It is therefore important to understand plant-animal interactions in forest ecosystems in an effort to develop strategies for forest conservation. Animal dispersal can assist in the restoration of forest plant diversity and consequently animal diversity. Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) occurs in the eastern part of South Africa and is known to feed on fruit, nectar, pollen and flowers. It is an important disperser of various indigenous and alien invasive forest fruit species. Little is known about the benefits these bats get from feeding on fruit. Furthermore, the buccal cavity and lingual adaptations of fruit bats in Southern Africa are unknown. This study investigated morphological and physiological adaptations for frugivory in E. wahlbergi. In particular, the palatal and lingual morphological structures of E. wahlbergi were examined by light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy. The results of this study showed that the morphological structures of tongue papillae in E. wahlbergi were similar to that of other fruit and nectar feeding bats. The structural arrangement of tongue papillae in E. wahlbergi probably allows food to move from the anterior part of the tongue and collect at the median line of the posterior part of the tongue, and thereafter move down to the pharynx. These bats had an elongated tongue, wide, flattened molar teeth, and a hard papillae structure observed on the upper palate at the posterior end of the buccal cavity. This papillae structure has not been described previously; and it appears that it is with this structure, together with the palatal ridges, and teeth that E. wahlbergi crushes fleshy fruit to extract the juices when feeding. Consequently palatal and lingual structures of E. wahlbergi showed morphological adaptations for efficiently feeding on fleshy fruit and nectar. South African indigenous and exotic fleshy fruits available to E. wahlbergi are found to be generally hexose dominant. These bats are suggested to have high glucose intake irrespective of sugar concentration to power their high energy demands due to flight. High glucose intake could result in increased blood plasma glucose levels which are detrimental to mammals of small body size. This study investigated the diel variations in blood plasma glucose concentrations of E. wahlbergi. Epomophorus wahlbergi’s blood plasma glucose concentration was lower (5.24 ± 0.38 mm ol/l) at 18h00 before feeding and increased during/after feeding (8.19 ± 1.24 mm ol/l), however bats appeared to regulate it within limits. Their range in concentrations was higher than the normal mammalian blood plasma glucose concentrations range. Consequently these bats appear to regulate their blood plasma glucose concentration although at a range higher than normal mammalian levels and thus reduce the negative consequences associated with hyperglycemia. The data obtained provide a baseline for comparison with free-ranging E. wahlbergi. Proteins are important in a diet to provide the required nitrogen and amino acids necessary for maintaining body tissues. Fruits, however, appear to have energy-rich but protein-limited foods. Frugivores that feed exclusively on fruit may therefore have difficulties in maintaining their protein requirements since fruits are generally high in sugar content but low in protein content. The importance of protein in the diet of E. wahlbergi was determined by measuring diet intake at varying levels of protein in the laboratory. Epomophorus wahlbergi were offered equicaloric 15 % glucose solutions with varying protein concentrations (2.58, 5.68, 7.23 g soy protein/kg H2O) and a solution with no protein. This was repeated using 15 % sucrose instead of glucose solutions. Epomophorus wahlbergi’s volumetric intake of the respective glucose and sucrose solutions varied among individual bats, with total volumetric intake highest for the solution with no protein (control) and lowest at 2.58 g/kg soy protein concentration solution for glucose and 5.68 and 7.23 g/kg soy protein concentration for sucrose. These bats appeared to prefer sugar solutions without or low protein, and their daily protein intake was relatively low. This suggests they have low-protein requirements, and this relates to their characteristic low-protein fruit available in the wild. Feeding and digestive efficiency has been widely studied in frugivorous and/or nectarivorous birds but relatively few studies have been done on bats, particularly African bats. Feeding on a liquid nectar diet and fruit juices could cause physiological challenges for nectarivores and/or frugivores as they have to balance water and energy intake from this liquid diet. Mammalian kidneys have to eliminate salts and nitrogenous wastes, conserve water during water restriction as well as excrete it when ingested in excess. Morphological renal characters are known to be reliable indicators of urinary concentrating abilities in mammals. Short digesta residence time is a digestive trait that is known to be associated with frugivory and this may be a problem since digestive efficiency is a function of the length of digesta retention time. Histological sections of E. wahlbergi kidneys and small intestines were examined under microscopy to determine water regulation and specialization for sugar absorption respectively. Cortex and medulla length measurements were taken to calculate the medulla: cortex ratio (M/C) and the percent medullary thickness (PMT). The observed M/C ratio and PMT of E. wahlbergi is typical of a mesic species. Epomophorus wahlbergi feeds on a watery diet and does not need to concentrate urine; therefore the medulla and cortex were more or less the same size. Analysis of the histological sections showed that the kidney structure of these bats allows efficient water regulation in a mesic environment. The microvilli of E. wahlbergi intestine were relatively long with a large surface area thus serves the purpose for efficient digestion and absorption of sugars in these bats. Future studies need to be done to determine the mechanisms by which these bats regulate their blood plasma glucose levels, and also determine intake on a selection of fruit in order to broaden research to adaptation of these bats on low-protein diets. This study contributes to a greater understanding of the physiological and morphological mechanisms that may affect fruit intake and consequently dispersal. It will contribute to a greater understanding of plant-animal interactions in southern Africa.