Researchers from Texas Tech have officially discovered a new Micronycteris bat species from Saint Vincent Island, a section of the Lesser Antilles.
Peter Larsen, a post-doctoral research associate from the Department of Biological Sciences, said university researchers conducted two expeditions to the island in 2005 and 2006 as part of a project in cataloging biodiversity.
Larsen said while he has been studying bats in the Caribbean since 2003, Texas Tech has been doing research in the area for decades.
“Our goal was to sample the catalog of bat diversity throughout the Lesser Antilles, which has lots of islands,” he said. “Bat diversity in each of these islands is poorly understood and we wanted to go to St. Vincent because a full-scale sample of bat fauna hadn’t been done on the island. We went to see how many species and what kind actually live there.”
Larsen said the team thought they had captured a species common throughout Central and South America, but when they examined the specimens at the Museum of Texas Tech’s Natural Science Research Laboratory a year later, they found an entirely different type of bat.
By 2008 Larsen had enlisted the help of Lizette Siles, a Tech graduate student in zoology, to see if the physical characteristics of the bat were truly different from other species.
Siles, a native of Bolivia, said when she examined the bat’s skull and other parts of the body, she found that it was significantly larger than what they expected.
“Some people misunderstand this and think the bat is huge in comparison, like a monster bat or something,” Siles said, “but what we mean is that it’s maybe a few millimeters larger. It seems small, but in statistical analysis it is a significant difference and through this we were able to tell that our bat was clearly formed apart from the rest of the genus.”
Larsen, Siles and researchers from South Dakota State University and the University of Scranton published their findings in an online version of the journal, Mammalian Biology. Larsen said their work will be formally published in print this fall, where their discovery of a new species will become official.
Their findings also showed that the new species was very young, Larsen said, probably around one million years old. It seems like a long time he said, but when looking at the evolution of species, one million years is relatively recent.
Larsen said the evolution of the new species began around the Pleistocene Era during periods of glaciations. He said originally ice connected all the islands in the chain called St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
When the ice melted, he said, some bats moved from smaller islands in the chain, like Trinidad and Tobago, to St. Vincent. But once sea levels rose and water surrounded the island, Larsen said, the bats were unable to fly the distance back and became genetically isolated.
“They’ve been given hundreds of thousands of years to be isolated from those South American populations,” he said. “Given time and isolation, a new species can evolve.”
The researchers spent a long time deciding the name of the new species, Siles said, but settled on the name “Garifuna”, the name of the natives of St. Vincent Island.
“The Garifuna people came from Africa and were transported to the Caribbean on a ship that wrecked on St. Vincent,” she said, “and the African people blended with the Caribbean people. It made sense to name this bat after the people, because like the natives, it has only been found on St. Vincent Island.”
Larsen said the team chose the name carefully because they knew what they decided would be forever.
“The name that you choose is really important because it is a permanent record in literature,” he said. “We really had to think long and hard about the most appropriate name and we thought the best name would be to honor the Garifuna people because it brings to light their history, which not many people are aware of. It was a good fit.”
The researchers were excited about the discovery, Larsen said, and would not have been able to do it without the resources Texas Tech had to offer.
“It’s not common for people to identify new species,” he said. “This really was a team effort and it took a lot of people to work on this together. The most important thing for us is to describe the new species and let the scientific community know that this species exists and we’re thrilled about the discovery.”