NEW DELHI: Researchers have discovered four new species of African leaf-nosed bats – cousins of the horseshoe bats that are believed to have served as hosts of the virus that caused COVID-19.
The discovery, published in the journal ZooKeys, takes on special importance in the era of COVID-19, according to the researchers.
“With COVID-19, we have a virus that’s running amok in the human population. It originated in a horseshoe bat in China,” said the paper’s lead author Bruce Patterson, a curator of mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, US.
“There are 25 or 30 species of horseshoe bats in China, and no one can determine which one was involved. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about them and their relatives,” Patterson said.
“None of these leaf-nosed bats carry a disease that’s problematic today, but we don’t know that that’s always going to be the case. And we don’t even know the number of species that exist,” said Terry Demos, a post-doctoral researcher in Patterson’s lab and a principal author of the paper.
The bats that Patterson and Demos studied are leaf-nosed bats in the family Hipposideridae.
They get their common name from the elaborate flaps on skin on their noses that the bats use as radar dishes to focus their calls and help catch their insect prey.
The family is spread throughout Africa, Asia, and Australasia but its African members are poorly known to science due to lack of research and political unrest in the areas where they’re found.
To get a better understanding of how the leaf-nosed bats are distributed and how they’re related to each other, Patterson, Demos, and their colleagues at Kenya’s Maasai Mara University and the National Museums of Kenya, and the Field Museum undertook a genetic study of leaf-nosed bats in Africa almost entirely based on museum specimens collected in various parts of Africa over the last few decades.
In several cases, supposedly widespread species proved to be several genetically distinct species that simply looked alike — new species hidden in plain sight.
These “cryptic species” often look similar to established species, but their DNA hints at their distinct evolutionary histories.
The genetic research indicates at least four new and undescribed species of bats.
These new species don’t have official names yet.