Hungry for lovin’: Male fruit bats trade food for sex, study finds

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TEL AVIV — Some males will go the extra mile when it comes to fornication, and it turns out Egyptian fruit bats are no exception. Following up on a previous discovery that the female Egyptian fruit bats will often rip food straight from a male’s mouth, scientists have figured out why: the males are later repaid for their graciousness with sex.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University came to the conclusion after observing the behaviors of the bats from three captive colonies over a year’s time. They were initially baffled when they saw females literally taking food from the mouths of males that had gone and collected their meals.

An Egyptian fruit bat mother leaving the cave with its pup. (Photo Credit: Sasha Danilovich and Stefan Greif.)

“Originally, we wondered: Why do the producers of food allow scroungers to take food from their mouths? Maybe they’re stronger?” says lead author, professor Yossi Yovel of TAU’s George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, in a statement. “But we found that most of the scroungers are female, and so we considered the possibility that females trade mating for food. This was our hypothesis, and, indeed, we found that this is the case.”

Yovel noticed that the females would begin mooching off the males three to four months before mating season began, keying in on specific bats before eventually choosing one to mate with — typically the one that it had formed the strongest food-snatching bond with. So for the new study, researchers monitored this specific behavior with an Egyptian fruit bat colony for more than a year and determined the genetics of the bats’ offspring.

“The results were quite clear. Females gave birth to the young of males from which they had scrounged food,” explains Yovel. “The findings lend support for the food-for-sex hypothesis in this species.”

Interestingly, the researchers also found little overlap among the males chosen by each female, suggesting the female bats make their choices using some sort of individual preference. In other words, in bat colonies, the ladies appear to get what the ladies want.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.