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Dr Corrie Schoeman in Madagascar, holding one
of Madagascars endemic bats, the Madagascar
Sucker-footed Bat (Myzopoda aurita).

The scientific community is going batty! Four new species of horseshoe bats have been discovered in east and southern Africa, after scientists pieced together clues such as DNA data and the most intense frequency of sonar calls of each of these flying mammals. 

The investigation was led by a team of bat experts which included Dr Corrie Schoeman of UKZN’s School of Life Sciences.    Lead author of the study was evolutionary geneticist Professor Peter Taylor of the University of Venda (South Africa).

Other team members were Dr Samantha Stoffberg of Stellenbosch University, Professor Ara Monadjem of the University of Swaziland, Dr Julian Bayliss of the Conservation Science Group at the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) and the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust in Malawi, and Dr Woody Cotterill of Stellenbosch University and the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON).

The new species are Cohen’s Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus cohenae), Smithers’ Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus smithersi), the Mozambican Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus mossambicus) and the Mount Mabu Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus mabuensis).

Two of the species were named in honour of dedicated Southern African conservationists – Ms Lientjie Cohen, a scientist of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency in South Africa, and the late Dr Reay Smithers of Zimbabwe, author of Southern Africa’s most comprehensive mammal anthology.

The third species was named in honour of Mount Mabu, the largest rainforest in southern Africa, which is under threat and where the bats reside. The fourth new species is found only in Mozambique.

The discoveries are described in the latest edition of the open source journal PLOS ONE and can be downloaded freely from https://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0041744

It was previously thought there was only one type of large horseshoe bat, Hildebrandt’s Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus hildebrandtii), which is found throughout east Africa and the tropical habitats of Zimbabwe and the Mpumalanga province in South Africa.

‘We now know that five distinct species of large horseshoe bats occur in central and eastern Africa,’ said Taylor. ‘We also know that Hildebrandt’s Horseshoe Bat, the species initially known to science, only occurs in east Africa.’

The researchers compared key characteristics of the bats, including sonar calls, their skull shape, genitalia, and crucially divergence in DNA sequences to diagnose and classify the new species.