Bats, better known for their mouse appearance, may have a colorful side. A new species, discovered when two bats were caught in an abandoned mining tunnel in West Africa, features showy orange-skinned bands.
The new findings “are beautiful,” says mammal Nancy Simmons of New York City’s National Museum of Natural History. The orange skin on the backs of the bats contrasts with black sections of the wing membranes.
But that’s not what differentiates this bat: three other Myotis species from the continent are equally striking. Far less visible features, from details of stripes hidden in its skin to echolocation calls, stick to Myotis nimbaensis as something unusual, Simmons and colleagues report online Jan. 13 at American Museum Novitates.
The new species was discovered in the old way: it went out into a remote forest at night with sharp eyes studying real animals. That’s not so common today in the age of sensitive genetic tools, Simmons says. Many of the nearly twenty species of bats normally named each year are detected through genetic analysis of museum specimens. M. nimbaensis differs genetically from close relatives, about as much as humans differentiate them from gorillas. There are also differences in teeth and other anatomies.
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But when investigators picked up the first bat, near the mouth of an abandoned tunnel for mineral exploration in the Guinea section of the Nimba Mountains, the striking beast was obviously nothing new. Although most of the more than 1,400 known types of bats are various shades of brown, bats here and there around the world can be yellow, white fluffball or copper red. And there was the issue of the other three orange species of Myotis. (How or whether colors matter in active animals at night, Simmons says, is "one of the mysteries").
One way to distinguish the new species is the proportions of secreted streaks on the individual hairs in orange skin spots. In the newly named bats, the lower third of each orange hair is black. Then comes a creamy white third before the hair turns pumpkin on the tip.
Researchers have named the name M. nimbaensis for its mountainous habitat. The Nimba Mountains soar abruptly from lowland forests, creating small “sky islands” of isolated habitat on the peaks, says co-author Eric Moïse Bakwo Fils, a bat specialist at Maroua University in Cameroon. M. nimbaensis probably eats insects, judging by its intertwined triangular teeth.
Bakwo Fils is concerned about the fragility of the islands of the sky and the future of the newly discovered bats. Small animals flying in the dark rarely draw attention to the conservation that makes the great African charismatic life. However, we depend on several little-seen bats that run off in the dark to catch insects, pollinate plants, spread seeds, and help in other tasks that sustain our ecosystems.