New Bat Species, Cousin of One Suspected in Covid Pandemic, Discovered

Since the novel coronavirus behind the Covid-19 pandemic is thought to have originated in a species of bat, knowledge about the creatures is power — now more than ever.

Members of a third new bat species. A colony of what is apparently a new species of Hipposideros from an abandoned gold mine in Western Kenya. (Photo courtesy of B.D. Patterson / Field Museum)

(CN) — Bats spend most of their lives in the dark and there is no shortage of mysteries when it comes to our understanding of the Chiroptera order. But in an analysis of the relationships between Old World leaf-nosed bats, research published in the scientific journal ZooKeys on Wednesday identifies four new species hidden away in the family tree’s branches. 

Hipposideridae are commonly called leaf-noses due to the distinct flaps of skin on their nose, which act as radar dishes to help echolocate tasty insects. Though this characteristic seems to make them easy to identify, looks can be deceiving. The unnamed species uncovered by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago were classified as other bats and were only found to be distinct through genetic analysis.

Until recently, the Hipposideridae were classified as a subfamily of the Rhinolophidae horseshoe bats. While researchers now theorize the leaf-noses split from the Rhinolophidae and Rhinonycteridae in the Eocene Epoch, some 41 million years ago, questions remain about the relationships between species.

Above all, researchers were interested in the relationships between three genera: the roundleaf bats Doryrhina and Macronycteris and the paleotropical Hipposideros. They wondered which species belong to which groups and whether they could identify a common ancestor.

The team of international researchers combed through 453 Hipposideridae samples, most of which were part of museum collections. Along with 134 genetic sequences from GenBank, researchers generated original data for 319 samples from across more than a hundred locations, including Kenya, Morocco, Uganda and Malaysia.

Because they used museum samples, researchers will be able to go back afterward and identify common physical attributes between relatives.

Researchers compared both mitochondrial data — passed from mother to offspring — and four nuclear intron sequences.

Mitochondrial analyses provide evidence that Asian Hipposideros came to Africa in two different colonization waves, which helps researchers distinguish several distinct groups based on geography. Evidence provided by the nuclear intron sequences, however, creates a very different family portrait, “calling into question their evolutionary independence or else indicating their very recent divergence.”

With this analysis raising many new questions, the paper’s lead author underscored the need to understand the relationships between coronavirus-carrying bats.

“With Covid-19, we have a virus that’s running amok in the human population. It originated in a horseshoe bat in China,” said Bruce Patterson, the Field Museum’s MacArthur curator of mammals in a statement.”

The African leaf-nosed bats are cousins of the horseshoe bats believed to serve as hosts for the zoonotic virus that caused Covid-19.

“There are 25 or 30 species of horseshoe bats in China, and no one can determine which one was involved. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about them and their relatives,” Patterson said. “These bats have a place in nature and perform essential ecological functions, and we can’t let our terror of Covid cause us to pull apart natural ecological systems.”

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