Ancient giant burrowing bat found in New Zealand

It’s not big, but it’s the biggest yet described. Tanya Loos reports.

Artist’s impression of the New Zealand burrowing bat, Mystacina robusta, which became extinct last century.

An artist’s impression of the New Zealand burrowing bat, Mystacina robusta, which became extinct last century. The new fossil find, Vulcanops jennyworthyae, is an ancient relative of burrowing or short-tailed bats.

Gavin Mouldey

Scientists have discovered an ancient giant burrowing bat that is related to New Zealand’s endemic burrowing bats – and the first new bat genus added to the country’s fauna in 150 years.

The bat’s teeth and bones were discovered in 16-19-million-year-old sediments near the town of St Bathans by an international team led by researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia.

It was named Vulcanops jennyworthyae after team member Jenny Worth, who discovered the fossils, and Vulcan, the mythological Roman god of fire and volcanoes.

With an estimated weight of just 40 grams Vulcanops is hardly a “giant”, but it is three times the size of living burrowing bats in NZ today, and the largest burrowing bat yet described.

NZ’s burrowing bats are so called because of their distinctly terrestrial lifestyle; they forage for insects, fruits and flowers while running about on all fours, and roosting in small burrows created in leaf litter or logs, or seabird nests.

Burrowing bats are also known as short-tailed bats, and the lesser short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata) may be the only surviving member of this unique genus.

UNSW’s Suzanne Hand and colleagues used a combination of DNA analysis and morphological character trait analysis known as Bayesian total evidence analysis to construct a phylogenetic study of a number of bat families, both extinct and living.

“Burrowing bats are more closely related to bats living in South America than to others in the southwest Pacific,” explains Hand.

“They are related to vampire bats, ghost-faced bats, fishing and frog-eating bats, and nectar-feeding bats, and belong to a bat superfamily that once spanned the southern landmasses of Australia, NZ, South America and possibly Antarctica.”

While burrowing bats are omnivorous, they are not known to consume larger prey. The research team’s analysis of morphology of the fossil teeth suggests that Vulcanops also consumed small vertebrates.

This new addition to the burrowing bat or Mystacinidae family may represent evidence of an adaptive radiation in feeding strategy in this large group of bats, the noctilionid bats.

The large bat lived in the tropical forests of the early Miocene period, about 20 million years ago, by the shores of massive 5000 square kilometre paleolake called Manaherikia, amongst a diverse assemblage of animals that included crocodilians, flamingo-like birds and terrestrial turtles.

Study co-author Paul Scofield, of NZ’s Canterbury Museum, says: “These bats, along with land turtles and crocodiles, show that major groups of animals have been lost from NZ. They show that the iconic survivors of this lost fauna – the tuataras, moas, kiwi, acanthisittid wrens and leiopelmatid frogs – evolved in a far more complex community that hitherto thought.”

The findings are published in a paper in the journal Scientific Reports.

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