At least four new species of African bats have been discovered, and while an exciting new development, the news comes at a sensitive time in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak. The bats, which have not yet properly been described, are known to be cousins of horseshoe bats – the species proposed as the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
The study, published in the journal ZooKeys, was investigating African leaf-nosed bats who get their common name from the skin flaps around their nostrils, which act as a radar dish when hunting. They can move them in order to refine the direction of their calls and catch insects more easily. They’re known to live throughout Africa, Asia, and Australasia, but the African members are the least well-researched due to political conflict in the area.
The researchers decided to take a closer look at African bat lineages and carry out a genetic study based almost entirely on museum specimens that had been collected across the region. Their results yielded several cases where what were once thought to be widespread species actually turned out to be several genetically distinct species that look similar. All in all, the team suggest their results indicate at least four new species of leaf-nosed bat based on their genetic findings, though these haven’t been officially named yet.
While not directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic, leaf-nosed bats are known to carry other strains of coronavirus and like all bats have a knack for harboring viruses. Some might view bats on the surface as a threat owing to their efficacy for pathogen spread, but it's important to remember these animals carry out lots of other important ecological roles. They pollinate crops and also make a sizable dent in populations of disease-spreading mosquitoes, one of their favorite snacks.
Despite their important role in the ecosystem, we know surprisingly little about bats. There are more than 1,400 species but a quarter of these were only discovered in the last 15 years. This gap in the ecological record means we’re not entirely sure how they evolved, where they live, and what their exact relationship is with the world around them. As is often the case in science, knowledge is power and without properly understanding these animals we put ourselves at risk from future disease outbreaks such as the one we’re currently experiencing.
"None of these leaf-nosed bats carry a disease that's problematic today, but we don't know that that's always going to be the case. And we don't even know the number of species that exist," says Terry Demos, a post-doctoral researcher in Patterson's lab and a principal author of the paper, in a statement.
“We owe it to ourselves to learn more about them and their relatives," says Bruce Patterson, the Field Museum's MacArthur curator of mammals and the paper's lead author.