Giant Burrowing Bat Roamed New Zealand Millions Of Years Ago, Fossil Remains Reveal

Artist's impression of Mystacina robusta, another New Zealand burrowing bat that went extinct last century, and a relative to the new Vulcanops jennyworthyae. Gavin Mouldey.

It’s the stuff nightmares are made of: a giant, foraging, scurrying bat roaming through the forests of New Zealand (where else?). Turns out, that nightmare is actually a reality.

A team of international scientists has discovered the fossil remains of a giant extinct burrowing bat in Central Otago on the South Island of New Zealand.  

So, what makes Vulcanops jennyworthyae a chiroptophobe's nightmare?

For starters, at 40 grams (1.4 ounces), the forest floor dweller was three times larger than the average bat. Fossilized teeth, found along with bones, indicate the species was omnivorous. As if that wasn't disturbing enough, the bat didn't just fly like its Kiwi relatives of today, it crawled through the forest scurrying, scavenging, and searching for plant and animal food. 

 Of the two types of bats, megabats (pictured) usually eat fruit and microbats generally eat insects. Dental records indicate the extinct bat was an omnivore. Benjamin B/ Shutterstock.

It also shared many characteristics with modern bats, although burrowing bats are more closely related to bats in South America than to those living in the southwest Pacific, according to the study's first author, Professor Sue Hand.

"They are related to vampire bats, ghost-faced bats, fishing and frog-eating bats, and nectar-feeding bats, and belong to a bat superfamily that once spanned the southern landmasses of Australia, New Zealand, South America and possibly Antarctica," said Hand in a statement.

The newly-discovered species is part of a genus of burrowing bats first discovered in 2015. It was the first new bat genus species unearthed in New Zealand in more than 150 years, indicating “for the first time that Myastacina (burrowing or short-tailed) bats have been present in New Zealand” for more than 16 million years “residing in habitats with very similar plant life and food sources."

The finding provides more insight into the morphological and ecological diversity of the Miocene Era 23 to 5.3 million years ago. The fossil remains were found in sediment from the prehistoric Lake Manuherikia, dating the bat back 19 to 16 million years ago. During this time New Zealand was an estimated 6-7°C warmer than today.

While burrowing bats were once found in Australia, today they only live in New Zealand where they are also the only terrestrial mammal. To date, there are 187 genera of bats and as many as 1,200 species

Led by the University of New South Wales-Sydney, the discovery was published in Scientific Reports and included scientists from the University of Salford, Flinders University, Queensland University, Canterbury Museum, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarew, the American Museum of Natural History, and Duke University.

And if you were wondering, Vulcanops jennyworthyae was named firstly for the Roman god of fire and secondly after its discoverer, Jennifer Worthy (who is obviously not afraid of bats).

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