In 2018, scientists embarked on an expedition to study the habitat of an endangered bat species in Guinea, West Africa. One night something unusual emerged in a trap: a new species of bat with a fiery orange body juxtaposed with striking black wings.
“It was, in a way, a life goal I never thought would happen,” said Jon Flanders, director of endangered species interventions for Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas. “Each type is important, but you get drawn to the interesting looking one, and this one is really spectacular.”
There are more than 1,400 bat species and more than 20 are added to the list each year. Most of the time, however, these are laboratory-based discoveries where cryptic species are genetically analyzed, or those that look exactly (or almost exactly) similar and were previously thought to be the same.
Just coming across a new species of bat in nature is something completely different.
“That kind of situation where senior researchers went out into the field and caught an animal and held it in their hand and said, ‘We can’t identify that,’ is much more unusual,” said Nancy Simmons, curator of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and chair of the global bat taxonomy group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The new orangutan-colored bat, Myotis nimbaensis, lives in Guinea’s Nimba Mountains, a verdant range of kilometer-high peaks that are rich in biodiversity, “in the middle of this otherwise flat landscape,” said Dr. Flanders.
He and his colleagues set out to examine long-abandoned mining tunnels that have become preferred homes for the region’s endangered bats. When they found a hazy, pumpkin-orange animal mixed in with the usual brown ones in their trap, they figured it just had to be an oddly colored individual.
“When I first saw it, I thought it was a common species,” said Eric Bakwo Fils, conservation biologist and bat expert at the University of Maroua in Cameroon.
Dr. Bakwo Fils and Dr. However, Flanders could not confirm a match with other African species. When the team returned to camp without mutual knowledge, Dr. Flanders and Dr. Bakwo Fils spent much of the night searching textbooks and online resources to solve the puzzle. They were both unsuccessful.
“The next morning I met Eric and at almost the same time we were saying, ‘This is a new breed,” said Dr. Flanders.
They turned to Dr. Simmons, who within 15 minutes of viewing the photos agreed that it looked like they’d found something new.
The team managed to recapture the original animal, a male, and also to catch a female. Dr. Simmons searched the American Museum of Natural History’s extensive bat collections to compare the two specimens to known species, and traveled to the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, DC, and the British Museum in London to do the same.
The researchers also performed a genetic analysis, which found that M. nimbaensis was at least five percent different from its closest relatives. They described their findings in the American Museum Novitates magazine on Wednesday.
Now that the confirmation of the new species is official, the next step is to learn about the ecology of M. nimbaensis. “The more we know about it, the more we know how to protect it,” said Dr. Flanders.
The researchers plan to use the echolocation calls of M. nimbaensis they recorded on-site to identify the species in the acoustic monitoring they are already doing in the area. From there, they can narrow down the bats’ habitat preferences, which will hopefully lead to protective measures.
“As far as we know, it is limited to the top of these mountains in Guinea,” said Dr. Simmons. “It’s probably only endangered by life in this small part of the planet.”
Bats play an important ecological role in West Africa by distributing seeds, pollinating plants and keeping insect species at bay. Still, they are persecuted across the region for superstition, and those ideas have been reinforced by the animals’ association with Ebola and other diseases, said Dr. Bakwo Fils. Like many other species, they are threatened with habitat loss.
Dr. Bakwo Fils hopes that the excitement created by the new species can motivate the conservation of bats in the area.
“This discovery is very important for the biodiversity of bats in West Africa because, even if bats are a very important part of our ecosystems, they rarely receive any attention,” he said.