A long-studied bat fossil has been confirmed as an entirely new species, bringing to two the count of bats known to be endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.
The newly named bat, Synemporion keana, has just been described in a new study in the journal American Museum Novitates. It joins the extant Hawaiian hoary bat on the skimpy list of bats native to Hawaii and brings to three the number of mammals endemic to the islands (the monk seal is also an island native).
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According to the scientists, Synemporion keana was smaller than the hoary bat (the latter weighs about half an ounce, with a wingspan of about 12 inches) and first popped up in the islands fossil record about 320,000 years ago, before going extinct around 1,100 years ago.
"Finding that there actually was a different bat - a second native land mammal for the islands - living there for such a long period of time was quite a surprise," said study co-author Nancy Simmons, curator-in-charge of the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Mammalogy.
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Calling it "really something new, not just a slight variation on an existing genus," Simmons said the extinct bat had a veritable melting pot of characteristics documented in creatures all over the world.
"The new bat contains a mosaic of features from taxa seen on many different continents," she said. "At some point, their ancestors flew to Hawaii, but we can't tell if they came from North America, Asia, or the Pacific Islands. They really could have come from anywhere based on what we know now."
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Synemporion keana was originally discovered from fossils found in a cave on Maui in 1981, with later samples turning up on Hawaii, Kauai, Molokai, and Oahu. Now, more than 30 years and much study later, the bat has been deemed a new species.
S. keana would have coexisted with the hoary bat for thousands of years, the scientists say. The reason for its extinction, though uncertain, may have come about once humans arrived on the islands.
"It seems possible that the reduction of native forests and associated insects after human colonization of the islands contributed not just to the extinction of plants, birds, and invertebrates, but also to the extinction of this endemic bat," said study co-author Francis Howarth, an entomologist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.