Fossil of Giant Extinct Burrowing Bat Found in New Zealand

Posted on January 11, 2018

Mystacina robusta

Researchers have discovered the fossil of a giant burrowing bat that inhabited New Zealand millions of years ago. The bat was about three times that size of an average modern bat. Burrowing bats are known for their unique foraging behavior where they crawl along the forest leaf litter on all fours hunting for insects and plans to eat. The researchers say the ancient bat species was large enough and had sharp enough teeth that it may have hunted small invertebrates.

The bat fossil was found by a UNSW Sydney-led international team of scientists. A research paper was published in Scientific Reports. The bat has been named Vulcanops jennyworthyae, after team member Jenny Worthy and Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and volcanoes. The Vulcan name references New Zealand's tectonic nature as well as the Vulcan Hotel, a historic hotel in St. Bathans, near where the bat fossil was found.

Professor Hand, Director of the PANGEA Research Centre at UNSW, says in a statement, "New Zealand's burrowing bats are also renowned for their extremely broad diet. They eat insects and other invertebrates such as weta and spiders, which they catch on the wing or chase by foot. And they also regularly consume fruit, flowers and nectar. However, Vulcanops's specialized teeth and large size suggest it had a different diet, capable of eating even more plant food as well as small vertebrates – a diet more like some of its South American cousins. We don’t see this in Australasian bats today."

UNSW Professor Sue Hand, the first author of the study, says, "Burrowing bats are more closely related to bats living in South America than to others in the southwest Pacific. 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."

The image above is an artist's impression of Mystacina robusta, a New Zealand burrowing bat that went extinct last century.

Image: Gavin Mouldey