Scientists have discovered the fossils of a giant burrowing bat, which lived millions of years ago in New Zealand.
A team of researchers from the University of South Wales, in collaboration with international scientists, found the bones and teeth of the extinct burrowing bat. The burrowing bat discovered was thrice the modern average bat size and it walked on four legs.
The fossilized remains unearthed from sediments in New Zealand and estimated to be 16 to 19 million years old were found in St Bathans in South Island’s Central Otago, South Island.
The scientists published their study in the journal Nature on Jan. 10, 2018.
Burrowing bats can be found only in New Zealand now, however, once they were also found in Australia. They are peculiar bats because they do not fly and scurry around on four legs while searching for plant and animal food on tree branches, under leaf litter, and over the forest floor.
The newly discovered fossil weighs about 40 grams, making it the biggest burrowing bat found to date. The findings also represent the first new entrant in the bat genus in the fauna of New Zealand in over 150 years. The giant burrowing bat has been given the name Vulcanops jennyworthyae.
“They are related to vampire bats, ghost-faced bats, fishing and frog-eating bats, and nectar-feeding bats,” said Sue Hand, the lead author of the study. “And belong to a bat superfamily that once spanned the southern landmasses of Australia, New Zealand, South America and possibly Antarctica.”
Burrowing bats are more closely related to South American bats than southwest Pacific ones. The burrowing bats of New Zealand are known for their varied diet, which includes invertebrates like spiders, weta, and other insects. They also consume nectar, flowers, and fruit. The large size and teeth of the newly discovered Vulcanops, however, suggests that its diet differed and included more small vertebrates and plant food.
The extinct giant burrowing bat also offers scientists a new understanding of Australasia’s original bat diversity. The Vulcanops became extinct during a time after the early Miocene, a period that also saw species of non-flying mammals, birds, terrestrial turtles, and crocodiles become extinct.
Scientists explain that the extinction was probably because they were species adapted to warmth. Climate change all over the planet introduced drier and colder conditions in New Zealand after the middle Miocene, which caused major changes to the environment and vegetation. The general drying and cooling trend could have driven the overall dwindling in New Zealand’s bat diversity.
Today, just two species of bat comprise the mammal fauna of the entire native land.