All but three land mammal species living on New Zealand today were brought there by modern humans, beginning around 800 years ago—and all three of those native mammal species are bats. But a newly discovered bat fossil suggests that there may be more species hiding in the isle’s ancient rock. Perhaps the mammal-poor islands once had a far more batty past.
A team of researchers from Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. announced that they’ve discovered evidence of an extinct bat species called Vulcanops jennyworthyae. The bat itself is weird—it was big and probably burrowed in the ground. But it also reveals a stranger evolutionary history of mammals on the island.
“This fossil bat indicates that there once was greater ecological diversity in the New Zealand’s bat fauna,” the authors write in the study published recently in Scientific Reports.
The researchers determined they’d found the new species from analysis of a jaw fragment with teeth found in southern New Zealand, in rock that was around 20 million years old. This doesn’t sound like a lot to go off of, but again, the country only has three bat species on it today—so finding 20 million year old bat teeth is definitely strange. These teeth were pretty large, suggesting that the bat was omnivorous and weighed around 2 ounces—larger than the other bat species on the island, and perhaps the size of a modern vampire bat. The teeth also show similarity to those of the country’s modern burrowing bats, raising the possibility that this extinct bat was also a burrower.
This discovery is surprising in its own right, said Nancy Simmons, curator-in-charge at the Department of Mammology in the American Museum of Natural History, who worked on this research. But a weird bat species can tell some of the history of New Zealand’s ecology. “We’ve now lost some of the ecological diversity present during that time,” she said, “Because we don’t have a bat of that body size and those traits existing today.”
The study doesn’t say much about non-bat species, Simmons told Gizmodo, but does imply there may still be more surprises to be found on New Zealand—and elsewhere.
“We can guess that anywhere on the planet there are extinct animals we haven found yet,” she said. “It’s exciting to find something new and different you weren’t expecting.”