Hammer-headed bat: The African megabat that looks like a gargoyle and holds honking pageants

Front and profile of a hammer-headed bat fitted with a solar-powered GPS collar.
An adult male hammer-headed bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) fitted with a solar-powered GPS collar for study. (Image credit: Sarah H. Olson; (CC0 1.0))

Name: Hammer-headed bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus)

Where it lives: Lowland forests of West and Central Africa

What it eats: Fruit — including figs, bananas, guavas and mangoes — and flies

Why it's awesome: These "megabats" are the largest in continental Africa. Hammer-headed bats are named after the males' oddly elongated, boxy heads, which contain a large resonating chamber that amplifies their calls. This bizarre head is the product of the bats' unusual mating system.  

Hammer-headed bats are among the few bat species with a lek courtship system — a kind of pageant where up to 150 males gather twice a year to impress females with loud honks and a wing-flapping display. 

Males hang from riverside trees and honk for hours at a time, while females fly by selecting a suitable mate. Females are highly picky, choosing the same 6% of males as mates 79% of the time (meaning the other 94% of males only get lucky once in a blue moon). The loudest honks usually get the most attention, so males have evolved a voice box, or larynx, that takes up around half their body cavity. 

Their larynx is so large it pushes the heart, lungs and intestines back and sideways, according to a 1990 study

Related: Honduran white bats — The fluffy little bats that roost together in leaf tents

The males' calls echo inside their thorax and bizarre, gargoyle-like heads before projecting out through their flared nostrils and pendulous lips. This elaborate head likely inspired the hammer-headed bat's Latin species name "monstrosus," which translates to "monstrous."

Females don't need big heads to impress a mate, so they sport narrower fox-like muzzles instead. Their bodies are also smaller, weighing about half as much as males — 0.5 pound (230 grams) compared with 0.9 pound (420 g) — and measuring around 8 inches (20 centimeters) long, compared with up to 11 inches (28 cm) for males.

However, both males and females have about a 3.3-foot (1 meter) wingspan and smooth, grayish-brown fur. 

Although they are frugivorous, meaning they eat fruit, hammer-headed bats are thought to occasionally turn carnivorous. A 1968 study reported observations of these bats feeding on scraps of bird meat and killing chickens to drink their blood in Gabon. The observer, a herpetological collector named Harry Andrew Beatty, twice rescued chickens that were "attacked late at night by Hypsignathus," according to the study.

Another fun fact about hammer-headed bats? They wrap their huge wings around their humped noses to go to sleep.

Sascha Pare
Trainee staff writer

Sascha is a U.K.-based trainee staff writer at Live Science. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Southampton in England and a master’s degree in science communication from Imperial College London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and the health website Zoe. Besides writing, she enjoys playing tennis, bread-making and browsing second-hand shops for hidden gems.