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Bat fossil shines light on NZ prehistory

12 January 2018

A newly discovered extinct bat from New Zealand was very big, had a broad diet, and was able to fly through the air as well as burrow into the ground. It's common to see them foraging for animal and plant food on the forest floor and along tree branches.

The bats lived between 19 and 16 million years ago, and have been named Vulcanops jennyworthyae.

The extinct bat was about three times the size of an average bat today. The new fossil find is an ancient relative. The fossilized remains of the 19 million year old burrowing bat were found in New Zealand.

At about three times the size of an average bat, with an estimated weight of 40 grams, the new fossil bat was the biggest burrowing bat yet known.

The bat could fly despite having four legs.

Study co-author Paul Schofield, from Canterbury Museum, said a full specimen of Vulcanops JennyWorthae was yet to be found, but the teeth have indicated the type of diet it would have eaten was closer to bats now living in South America, rather than those residing in New Zealand.

Weighing in at 40g, the bat named Vulcanops JennyWorthyae, is around three times the size of bats now living in New Zealand.

"New Zealand's burrowing bats are renowned for their extremely broad diet".

That's probably because 50 million years ago, when global temperatures were up to 54°F higher than today, Australasia, South America, and a frost-free Antartica were all joined together in the supercontinent of Gondwana.

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Te Papa's Alan Tennyson was part of an worldwide team of scientists from Australia, the United Kingdom and US who reported the new fossil find in the journal Scientific Reports.

"This unusual fossil bat is very different from the bats living in New Zealand today, and shows that we are missing a huge amount of their evolutionary history, " said Dr. Robin Beck, a lecturer in biology at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom, in a release.

The fossil dig site at St Bathans in New Zealand.

'And they also regularly consume fruit, flowers and nectar, ' says Professor Hand, who is Director of the PANGEA Research Centre at UNSW. Burrowing (or short-tailed) bats are today only found in New Zealand but they once also lived in Australia.

According to scientists, this diverse fauna lived in or around a 5600-square-kilometre prehistoric Lake Manuherikia that once covered much of the Maniototo region of the South Island.

"However, Vulcanops' specialised teeth and large size suggest it had a different diet, capable of eating even more plant food as well as small vertebrates - a diet more like some of its South American cousins".

Vulcanops went extinct after the early Miocene period - as did a number of species in the region, including crocodiles, turtles, pigeons, parrots and palaelodids, which were a bit like flamingos.

According to the study, the flying creature is "the first new bat genus to be added to New Zealand's fauna in more than 150 years" and holds clues about the evolution of these creatures in the area during prehistoric times - "this fossil bat indicates that there once was greater ecological diversity in the New Zealand's bat fauna and ... it signals substantial loss of diversity since the Miocene". All other land mammals in the country have been introduced by humans over the past 800 years.

Bat fossil shines light on NZ prehistory