Remains of extinct bat found in Otago

Artist’s impression of a New Zealand burrowing bat Mystacina robusta that went extinct in the 1960s. The new fossil find is an ancient relative. Illustration by Gavin Mouldey

The discovery of fossilised remains of a giant bat that lived in New Zealand millions of years ago shows that it was once home to a diverse range of furry creatures.

Burrowing bats not only fly but also scurry about on all fours.

The scientific name of the bat is Vulcanops jennyworthyae and it is the largest known species of all burrowing bats.

The most awesome factor related to this discovery is the addition of the genus, Vulcanops, which is the first of its kind to find a place in the list of bats found in Newland in a time period of 150 years. Image credit: Gavin Mouldey.

Burrowing bats are odd because they not only fly, but also move hurriedly over the forest floor, under leaf litter and along tree branches while looking for both animal and plant food.

The University of Salford noted in a statement that burrowing bats used to exist throughout the once-connected landmasses of the Southern Hemisphere, including in Australia, South America and perhaps even Antarctica, but today are only found in New Zealand. The modern counterparts of these ancient bats can be found far away in the South American continent.

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Te Papa's Alan Tennyson was part of an worldwide team of scientists from Australia, the United Kingdom and US who reported the new fossil find in the journal Scientific Reports. They eat insects and other invertebrates such as weta and spiders, which they catch on the wing or chase by foot.

"And they also regularly consume fruit, flowers and nectar", said Hand. But their giant ancestors, which were three times the size of the average bat today, could count on specialized teeth that allowed him to devour a richer variety of plants and even small vertebrates, a diet that is now only followed by its South American cousins.

"Burrowing bats are more closely related to bats living in South America than to others in the southwest Pacific", said the study's lead author Professor Sue Hand, Director of the Palaeontology, Geobiology, and Earth Archives Research Centre (PANGEA) at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, in a press release. It most likely living in the forests and ferns, close to the prehistoric Lake Manuherika, which was once part of the Maniototo region on the South Island, researchers wrote in the paper. At that time, New Zealand was a "semitropical to warm-temperate" rainforest, the study notes.

"Vulcanops jennyworthyae provides new insight into the original diversity of bats in Australasia", the paleontologists said. It probably went extinct after the early Miocene (a geologic epoch that started about 23 million years ago and ended about 5.33 million years ago), like other extinct species found in the same location.

"These include crocodiles, terrestrial turtles, flamingo-like palaelodids, swiftlets, several pigeon, parrot and shorebird lineages and non-flying mammals". On contrary to the previously understood system, these species evolved in way more complicated community.

While that does not sound like very much, it's practically colossal by bat standards - many species weigh just a fraction of an ounce.

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