Ancient Massive Bat Species from New Zealand Walked on All Fours

First Posted: Jun 18, 2015 08:32 AM EDT

Scientists have uncovered the fossilized remains of an ancient, massive bat species that walked on four limbs and was three times larger than today's average bat. The new findings reveal a species that lived 16 million years ago during the Miocene era.

The new species, called Mystacina miocenalis, is related to another bat, called Mystacina tuberculate. The related bat actually still exists in New Zealand's old growth forests, and this latest finding shows that Mystacina bats have existed in this area for millions of years.

New Zealand's only native terrestrial mammals are three species of bat. These bats are known as burrowing bats since 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.

The newly discovered species has similar teeth to its living relative. This suggests that the bat had a broad diet that included nectar, pollen, fruit, insects and spiders. Fossilized limb bones also suggest that these bats were adept at walking.

"The size of bats is physically constrained by the demands of flight and echolocation, as you need to be small, quick and accurate to chase insects in the dark," said Suzanne Hand, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The unusually large size of this bat suggests it was doing less in-flight hunting and was taking heavier prey from the ground, and larger fruit than even its living cousin."

The researchers also found a diverse array of plant, animal and insect fossils at the site, which shows that the 16-million-year-old subtropical ecosystem bore resemblance to the more temperate one that exists today. In fact, the Miocene ecosystem had the same kinds of trees used today by modern bats for their colonial roosts.

The findings reveal a bit more about this ancient bat, and show exactly how long these bats have been present in this region.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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