New horseshoe bat species discovered at Natural History Museum

A new horseshoe bat species has been discovered in the Natural History Museum in London. The female bat, which had been collected by Charles M. Francis in Malaysia in 1983, was preserved in alcohol for three decades in the Museum’s collection.

The new species has been named Rhinolophus francisi in Mr. Francis’ honour. It is also called Francis’ woolly horseshoe bat.

As it is the first example of this new species ever found and described, it is a reference point by scientists who try to classify similar bats in the future, i.e. the Museum specimen has been designated as the type specimen.

horseshoe batThis female bat in the Natural History Museum’s collection is the type specimen for the new species Rhinolophus francisi. It has been stored in alcohol for over three decades. (Image: Natural History Museum)

An author of the study and Curator of Mammals at the Museum, Roberto Portela Miguez, said:

“This new species of bat highlights once more the value and importance of natural history collections. Our current and future understanding of the world’s biodiversity depends to a great extent on these collections and those who study them.”

Peculiar face

These types of bats (the Rhinolophus genus) have a horseshoe-shaped, leaf-like structure on their nose, hence they are known as ‘horseshoe bats’.

Chiropterologists (bat experts) believe they use this structure to focus the sound of their echolocation calls, which they use for navigation and finding food. Rhinolophus bats use a specially adapted sound frequency to detect airborne fluttering insects.

A network of scientists was able to identify the new species – Rhinolophus francisi – thanks to field surveys across Southeast Asia, plus the re-examination of the Museum specimen.

The researchers gathered and analyzed genetic and acoustic data from several different bat species in the region for comparison, and found that a number of specimens were distinct from any known species.

In order to avoid handling the bat bones, which are extremely thin and fragile, the team used a CT scanner to measure the animal’s skull.

Two more specimens found

Two additional specimens, collected in central and western Kalimantan in 2004 in Indonesia, have also been confirmed as Rhinolophus francisi bats. One has been deposited in the Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense in Bogor, Indonesia, and the other in the Harrison Institute in Sevenoaks, UK.

Further studies of other bats housed in museum collections may show that Rhinolophus francisi is widespread in Southeast Asia. According to genetic data, it may also be present in Vietnam. The authors stress that further studies are needed to confirm this.

BatRhinolophus francisi thailandicus. This specimen was collected in western Thailand. After gathering genetic and acoustic data, it was released back into the wild. The data showed it is different from the Indonesian specimens. (Image: Natural History Museum)

A fourth specimen, collected in western Thailand, was found to be nearly identical in terms of echolocation frequencies and physical appearance. However, genetic sequencing found a 10% genetic divergence from the Indonesian specimens. The scientists describe the fourth specimen as a subspecies Rhinolophus francisi thailandicus.

The scientists say additional research in Thailand’s forests may show that the two populations are distinct enough to consider Rhinolophus francisi thailandicus a new species in its own right.

Shrinking forests

Unlike amphibians, insects and fishes, the discovery of new mammal species is very rare. In recent years, bats have been a notable exception.

Lead author, Pipat Soisook, said:

“The rate of discovery of new bat species from Southeast Asia is amazingly high since the last decade, and we know how important these bats are to the ecosystem.”

There are today more than 87 recognised species in the Rhinolophus genus. Since 2005, eight new species have been described.

Bat SkullA CT scan reconstruction of Rhinolophus francisi’s skull reveals spiky, sharp-edged teeth that are characteristic of an insect-eating bat. (Image: Natural History Museum)

Increasing deforestation

Soisook added “However, the rate of deforestation in the region is also a very serious problem.”

Sadly, over recent decades, the rate of deforestation has increased dramatically, according to Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring system.

Global Forest Watch said in a recent analysis:

“With the exception of China, the average rate of tree cover loss in Mekong countries from 2001-2014 increased by more than five times the rate of the rest of the tropics.”

Between 2001 and 2014, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia ranked among the top ten countries globally that experienced the fastest acceleration of tree cover loss.

Referring to the shrinking forests, Soisook said:

“Without knowledge of biodiversity, which is based on accurate taxonomic studies, it would be very difficult to save these incredible creatures from extinction.”