Scientists have discovered a half-dozen new species of ancient bats, which lived up to 35 million years ago, hidden amid fossil fragments found at the El Faiyum oasis in Egypt, National Geographic News reports. The fossil bats, primitive versions of bat groups that still exist today offer strong evidence that modern bats evolved in Africa rather than in the Northern Hemisphere, as some have theorized, National Geographic said.
“In a sense, Africa is sort of a crucible for the evolution of the modern bats,” paleontologist Gregg Gunnell of the University of Michigan told the news service. (The names of the new species will be revealed in an article in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.)
The 33 bat fossils, which include teeth and jawbones, were among many others collected over a period of decades by Duke University paleontologist Elwyn L. Simons. The bat fossils were set aside and largely ignored, National Geographic said, until Gunnell’s team recently examined them to determine similarities and differences with existing bat species.
The oldest known bat fossils are around 55 million years old and were found in North America and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. They typically are quite primitive.
Of the new fossils, Gunnell said, “Generally in [this period in the fossil record], you tend to [find] archaic bats but nothing very modern. But these animals are all members of living families.”
The paleontologists say the diversity of species discovered in El Faiyum strongly suggests that bat species evolved in Africa, according to National Geographic. Gunnell said he thinks a primitive bat species reached Africa about 50 million years ago, “then differentiated into these more modern forms.”
National Geographic said the experts were surprised that the new species were similar to microbats, a group of modern bats that uses echolocation (a type of biological sonar) to navigate and hunt.
Among the new species is an unusually large microbat, with an apparent wingspan of about to two feet (0.6 meter). Microbats are smaller than megabats (or fruit bats), which are found in tropical climates and usually do not have echolocation abilities.