The little pied bat (aka pied butterfly bat) of central and west Africa is one of the most dazzling of bats, with dramatic white stripes and spots on its black fur. Its markings have been compared to those of a badger or panda. It’s also one of the most seldom seen, with only about three reports since its discovery in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1938, and none since one was collected in the Ivory Coast in 1972. That changed this year, when two research teams reported capturing pied bats, one in the DR Congo and the other in South Sudan.
|The pied bat: Glauconycteris superba or the proposed Niumbaha superba. Photo courtesy of Bucknell University/DeeAnn Reeder
This bat “is certainly one of the most spectacular bats in Africa and worldwide”, said biologist Jacob Fahr of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany. He was on the team working in DR Congo.
The paucity of sightings might suggest very specific habitat preferences for a species that’s thought to prefer dense tropical forests. But the new encounters may also reflect a sharp increase in bat research across the continent by scientists from Africa as well as Western countries. That new interest was symbolized in February 2013, as delegates to the first African Bat Conservation Summit in Kenya created Bat Conservation Africa, a continental network of scientists and conservationists.
A paper published in the European Journal of Taxonomy this year announced “the rediscovery of the pied butterfly bat (Glauconycteris superba), 40 years after this species was last reported.”
The biologists were working on Mbiye Island in the Congo River as part of larger study, when a pied bat wound up in one of 10 mist nets. Two members of that team, Fahr and Guy-Crispin Gembu Tungaluna of the University of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo, participated in the Kenya summit.
The other published report of the species, in the journal ZooKeys, included a proposal to create a new genus for the pied bat. Its authors included DeeAnn Reeder and Megan Vodzak of Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Kristofer Helgen and Darrin Lunde of the U.S. Smithsonian Institution and Imran Ejotre of Islamic University of Uganda.
They were doing fieldwork in the Bangangai Game Reserve when the remarkable bat was captured. “My attention was immediately drawn to the bat’s strikingly beautiful and distinct pattern of spots and stripes,” Reeder said in a Bucknell news release. “It was clearly a very extraordinary animal, one that I had never seen before. I knew the second I saw it that it was the find of a lifetime.”
After a detailed analysis of the bat, she said, it was “clear that it doesn’t belong in the genus that it’s in right now. … Everything you look at doesn’t fit. It’s so unique that we need to create a new genus.”
The team proposes a genus called “Niumbaha,” which means “unusual” in the Zande language of the area.
“To me, this discovery is significant because it highlights the biological importance of South Sudan and hints that this new nation has many natural wonders yet to be discovered. South Sudan is a country with much to offer and much to protect,” said Matt Rice, South Sudan country director for Fauna & Flora International, which is working with Reeder.
“Our discovery of this new genus is an indicator of how diverse the area is and how much work remains,” Reeder added.
That observation can be applied across nearly all of Africa, but bat science and conservation clearly is taking hold on the vast continent. There are more remarkable discoveries yet to come.