Five new species of bats have been discovered in the forests of Senegal, a new study says.
Each less than 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide, the newfound mammals echolocate, or use their natural sonar, to find prey—mostly midges.
“It was quite a shock to find [so many] new species in one study,” said co-author Nancy Irwin, a biologist at the University of York in the U.K.
The bats belong to Vespertilionidae, the biggest and most well-known bat family. But these bats—discovered during seven expeditions by Czech scientists to Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park between 2004 and 2008—are still something of a mystery. (Also see “Pictures: ‘Demon’ Bat, Other New Tube-Nosed Species Found.”)
“The real surprise,” Irwin said, was that though the new bats look similar to their bat cousins in other parts of Africa, genetically they’re different.
“This is a signal telling us that these animals have been isolated in the same place,” she said.
West African Refuge
In the case of West Africa, deep rain forests blanketed the region until about three million years ago, when much of the area became covered with giant expanses of savanna.
However some forest patches remained, and it’s here where the newfound Senegalese bat species became isolated from their cousins and diversified into new species, the study says.
That’s supported by Irwin and colleagues’ genetic research, which shows that the new bats split off from their relatives about three million years ago. (See National Geographic’s bat videos.)
Irwin and colleagues suspect West Africa was also a “refugia” during the last Ice Age, which ended about 11,000 years ago. A refugia is an area where certain conditions allow a species or a group of species to survive during a time of change.
Much is still unknown about the new bats, including their ranges, added Irwin, whose study was published August 12 in the journal Frontiers of Zoology.
“West Africa is an amazing place,” she said, “with lots of things to be discovered and described.”