In 2018, scientists embarked on an expedition to investigate the habitat of an endangered species of bat in the West African country of Guinea. One night, a trap revealed something unusual: a new species of bat with a fiery orange body strikingly juxtaposed with black wings.
“It was sort of a life goal in a way, a goal that I never thought would come true,” said Jon Flanders, director of endangered species response at Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas. “Every species is important, but you’re drawn to those that look interesting, and this one is really spectacular.
There are over 1,400 species of bats and every year more than 20 join the list. Most of the time, however, these are laboratory findings that involve the genetic analysis of cryptic species, or those that look exactly (or almost) alike and were once thought to be identical.
Just occurring on a new species of bat in the wild is something entirely different.
“This kind of a situation where experienced researchers went out into the field and grabbed an animal and held it in their hand and said, ‘This is something that we cannot identify’ is much more. unusual, ”said Nancy Simmons, curator of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and chair of the Global Bat Taxonomy Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The new orangutan-tinted bat, Myotis nimbaensis, lives in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea, a verdant series of kilometer-high, biodiversity-rich peaks “just plonked in the middle of this otherwise flat landscape” , said Dr Flanders.
He and his colleagues set out to study long-abandoned mining tunnels that have become the favorite home of the region’s endangered bats. When they found a fuzzy, orange-pumpkin animal mixed with the usual brown animals in their trap, they figured it must be just an oddly colored individual.
“When I first saw it, I thought it was a common species,” said Eric Bakwo Fils, conservation biologist and bat specialist at the University of Maroua in Cameroon.
However, going through their identification guides, Dr Bakwo Fils and Dr Flanders could not confirm a match with any other African species. When the team returned to camp, unbeknownst to the other, Dr Flanders and Dr Bakwo Fils both spent much of the night searching for textbooks and resources online in an attempt to resolve the problem. mystery. They both failed.
“The next morning I met Eric and almost at the same time we said, ‘This is a new species,’” Dr Flanders said.
They contacted Dr Simmons, who agreed within 15 minutes of seeing the photos that he appeared to have found something new.
The team managed to re-capture the original animal, a male, and also captured a female. Dr Simmons combed through the American Museum of Natural History’s extensive bat collections to compare the two specimens with known species, and she visited the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, DC, and the British Museum in London to do the same.
The researchers also conducted a genetic analysis, which found that M. nimbaensis is at least five percent different from its closest relatives. They described their findings Wednesday in the journal American Museum Novitates.
Now that the confirmation of the new species is official, the next step is to learn more about the ecology of M. nimbaensis. “The more we know about it, the more we will know how to protect it as well,” said Dr Flanders.
The researchers plan to use the M. nimbaensis echolocation calls they recorded in the field to help identify acoustically monitoring species they are already doing in the area. From there, they can reduce the bat’s habitat preferences, which will hopefully lead to protections.
“As far as we know, it is confined to the top of this mountain range in Guinea,” Dr Simmons said. “He’s probably in danger just because he lives in this small part of the planet.”
Bats play a critical ecological role in West Africa, dispersing seeds, pollinating plants and controlling insect species. Yet, they are persecuted throughout the region because of superstitions, and these ideas have been compounded by the association of animals with Ebola and other diseases, Dr Bakwo Fils said. Like many other species, they are also threatened by habitat loss.
Dr Bakwo Fils hopes that the enthusiasm generated by the new species can begin to motivate the protection of bats in the region.
“This discovery is very important in terms of biodiversity of bats in West Africa, because even if bats are a very important component of our ecosystems, they rarely receive attention,” he said. declared.