Giant Burrowing Bat from New Zealand

A team of scientists from the University of South Wales, in collaboration with colleagues from Queensland University, Duke University, Canterbury Museum, and co-workers from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the American Museum of Natural History, have identified a new species of giant, burrowing, Miocene bat.  Fossil bones and teeth of the extinct species, which was about three times the size of most extant non-fruit eating bats, were excavated from Miocene-aged deposits near to the town of St Bathans in central Otago (New Zealand, South Island).

An Artist’s Illustration of the New Species of Giant Burrowing Bat (Vulcanops jennyworthyae)

Vulcanops Illustated.

An illustration of the newly described, giant, burrowing bat Vulcanops.

Picture Credit: Gavin Mouldey

Writing in the academic journal “Scientific Reports”, the scientists describe the new species, named Vulcanops jennyworthyae, as a cursorial species, as although they could fly, they were very confident on the forest floor, scurrying through the leaf litter searching for insects and other invertebrates.  Today, burrowing bats are only found now in New Zealand, but they once also lived in Australia.   It is thought that a lack of terrestrial predators in more isolated parts of the antipodes allowed bats to exploit a ground-dwelling niche without having to resort to the high energy requirements of constant flight.

A Giant Bat?

Described as a giant, might make readers think of some nightmarish beast, but with an estimated weight of just forty grammes, although larger than insectivorous bats around today, Vulcanops jennyworthyae weighed less than a golf ball.  It would have posed no danger to larger animals or people had they been around some 19 to 16 million years ago when Vulcanops roamed.  It is the first new bat species to be added to the list of New Zealand’s Chiroptera (bats) for more than 150 years.

The Miocene species has been named Vulcanops jennyworthyae, after team member Jenny Worthy who found the bat fossils and in recognition of her role in helping to reveal the unique St Bathans Miocene fauna, and after Vulcan, the mythological Roman god of volcanoes and fire.

It is likely that climate change leading to a period of general cooling and drying drove the overall loss in bat diversity in New Zealand, just two bat species today comprise the entire native land mammal fauna.  All other modern land mammals in New Zealand have been introduced by people within the last 800 years.

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