Revising the taxonomy of a bat species can be difficult. Enter the Yoda bat.
Revising the taxonomy of the sub-family tube-nosed fruit bats (Nyctimeninae) was one of the highest priorities of the IUCN Action Conservation Plan for fruit bats in 1998. The idea is, if you cannot identify the animal in your hand, you cannot study anything about its biology, ecology, or behavior, let alone make any sound management plan.
There are about nineteen species in the group Nyctimeninae, but the problem was, that though many species had been named on remote islands, no one had tackled the New Guinean tube- nosed fruit bats. With more collections, especially Professor Tim Flannerys work and books entitled Mammals of New Guinea, and Mammals of the South-west Pacific and Moluccan Island, it became clear that there was a lot to do. They are amazing bats, but there was no way of identifying them. Even a stamp was produced in Papua New Guinea, where the assignment was unknown and thus left broadly as “Nyctimene sp.
When a new species is discovered, a key has to be written. This is a list of things or characters that are unique to the new species. With a set of facts (for example: big ears, short face, long tail, etc.), you can look at the animal and identify what it is. Its like using a key to open a door and find the right place to put the animal.
With finding a new species, you must make sure that it has not been named before – is there a name or a forgotten note written on a specimen label in a museum? It requires reading all of the literature thats ever been written about the species, as well as the expeditions that collected them. Tube-nosed bats were one of the first bat species ever named, which was in 1769. Therefore, examining the specimens was quite a herculean task, with many trips to specialist libraries to read beautiful old books and journals, not to mention the 2 years in the field spent studying the species.
Now, 3,000 specimens and 18 museums later, I found only slight distinctions that could separate the medium-sized bats of New Guinea. These bats are all very similar – they have not changed from each other very much in terms of shape – instead, they have kept to the same body plan with only slight modifications.
The new species, N. wrighate sp.nov., is different from its cousins by having a broader, rounder jaw, big teeth, and a shorter skull. It also has a clear stripe down its back. Observing the species by hand, it is still very difficult to see the differences. Three wing measurements separate the bat from two other species, but only its big smile sets this species apart from the widespread Papuan tube nosed fruit bat (N. a. papuanus). Nyctimene wrightae has affectionately been known on the web as the Yoda bat; as like other tube-nosed fruit bats, it has a short face and long pointed ears, similar to Yoda in Star Wars.
However, as remote Papuans have never seen Star Wars, I chose to call the bat after the local word Hamamas, which means happy in the Tok pidgin language of Papua New Guinea. This refers to the broad grin of the bat, which makes it look like it has a constant smile. My field assistants requested that it be called the happy tube-nosed bat in English. The scientific name, Nyctimene wrightae, was chosen in honor of Deb Wright – a field biologist, trainer of many Papuan scientists, and founder of several Papua New Guinea NGOs. She is also very jolly, so this was a perfect fit with the happy tube-nosed bat!
Irwin, Nancy. 2017. A new tube-nosed fruit bat from New Guinea, Nyctimene wrightae sp. nov., a re-diagnosis of N. certans and N. cyclotis (Pteropodidae: Chiroptera), and a review of their conservation status. Records of the Australian Museum 69(2): 73100, published 9 Aug 2017. https://doi.org/10.3853/j.2201-4349.69.2017.1654
About the Author:
Dr. Nancy Irwin has recently finished her PhD at the University of Queensland. She works on bats in many parts of the world from Papua New Guinea, to White-nose Syndrome in Europe. She benefited from the BCI student scholarship program that helped fund some of her extensive field-work in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.