Fossils of a bat species which walked on four limbs and was three times larger than today’s average bat have been discovered in New Zealand.
The remains were found near Central Otago in sediment left over from a prehistoric body of water known as Lake Manuherikia which was part of warmer subtropical rainforest during the early Miocene era between 16 million and 19 million years ago
The species, Mystacina miocenalis, described in the journal PLOS ONE, is related to another bat, Mystacina tuberculata, which still lives in New Zealand’s old growth forests.
“Our discovery shows for the first time that Mystacina bats have been present in New Zealand for upwards of 16 million years, residing in habitats with very similar plant life and food sources,” says lead author and vertebrate palaeontologist, Suzanne Hand from the University of New South Wales.
New Zealand’s only native terrestrial mammals are three species of bat, including two belonging to the Mystacina genus – one of which was last sighted in the 1960s.
They are known as burrowing bats because they forage on the ground under leaf-litter and snow, as well as in the air, scuttling on their wrists and backward-facing feet, while keeping their wings tightly furled.
“This helps us understand the capacity of bats to establish populations on islands and the climatic conditions required for this to happen,” says Associate Professor Hand.
“Bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers that keep forests healthy. Understanding the connectivity between the bat faunas of different landmasses is important for evaluating biosecurity threats and conservation priorities for fragile island ecosystems.”
The new species has similar teeth to its contemporary relative, suggesting a broad diet that included nectar, pollen and fruit, as well as insects and spiders.
At an estimated 40 grams, the fossil bat is roughly three times heavier than its living cousin.
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