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New horseshoe bat species found in London's Natural History Museum collection
Francis' woolly horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus francisi) lives in Southeast Asia.

By: Liam Proud

LONDON.- A bat preserved in alcohol for 30 years in the Natural History Museum's collection has been recognised as a new species of horseshoe bat.

The female bat was collected in Malaysia in 1983 by Charles M Francis. The new species is named Rhinolophus francisi, or Francis' woolly horseshoe bat, in his honour.

As the first example of this new species ever found and described, the Museum specimen has been designated as the type specimen. This means it will be used as a reference point by scientists trying to classify similar bats in the future.

'This new species of bat highlights once more the value and importance of natural history collections,' says Roberto Portela Miguez, an author of the study and Curator of Mammals at the Museum.

'Our current and future understanding of the world's biodiversity depends to a great extent on these collections and those who study them.'

Funny face
Bats in the Rhinolophus genus typically have a horseshoe-shaped, leaf-like structure on their nose, earning them the common name 'horseshoe bats'.

Experts think that they use this structure to focus the sound of their echolocation calls, which are used for navigation and finding food. Rhinolophus bats use a specially adapted sound frequency to detect fluttering insects.

Field surveys across Southeast Asia, in addition to the re-examination of the Museum specimen, helped a network of researchers to identify the new species, Rhinolophus francisi.

The team collected genetic and acoustic data from a range of bats in the region for comparison, and found that some specimens were distinct from any known species.

Bat bones are very thin and fragile, so to avoid handling the Museum specimen, the researchers used a CT scanner to measure the key dimensions of the animal's skull.

Two more specimens, collected in central and western Kalimantan in Indonesia in 2004, have also been identified as members of the new species. One is now deposited at the Harrison Institute in the UK, and the other in Indonesia's Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense.

Further surveys and analyses of other bats housed in museum collections could show that the species is widespread in Southeast Asia. Genetic data suggest that it may also be present in Vietnam, but the paper's authors say that further confirmation is needed.

A fourth specimen, from western Thailand, was found to be almost identical in terms of its physical appearance and echolocation frequencies. But genetic sequencing revealed a genetic divergence of about 10 per cent from the Indonesian specimens, leading the researchers to describe the Thai specimen as a subspecies, Rhinolophus francisi thailandicus.

They say that future research in Thailand's forests may reveal that the two populations are sufficiently distinct to consider Rhinolophus francisi thailandicus a new species in its own right.

Shrinking forests
Unlike fishes, insects and amphibians, the discovery of new mammal species is relatively rare. Bats have been a notable exception to this rule in recent years.

Pipat Soisook, lead author of the paper, says that 'the rate of discovery of new bat species from Southeast Asia is amazingly high since the last decade, and we know how important these bats are to the ecosystem'.

In the Rhinolophus genus alone there are now over 87 recognised species, with eight new species described since 2005.

'However, the rate of deforestation in the region is also a very serious problem,' adds Soisook.

According to Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring system created by the World Resources Institute, the Greater Mekong region (Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and China's Yunnan Province) has seen a drastic pick-up in the rate of deforestation in recent decades.

'With the exception of China, the average rate of tree cover loss in Mekong countries from 2001-2014 increased by more than five times the rate of the rest of the tropics,' the organisation said in a recent analysis.

As part of the same piece of research, Global Forest Watch ranked Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia in the top 10 countries worldwide that experienced the fastest acceleration of tree cover loss between 2001 and 2014.

Scientists say that shrinking forests could struggle to support the same diversity of life as in the past, representing a serious threat to the survival of bats and other animals in the region.

'Without knowledge of biodiversity, which is based on accurate taxonomic studies, it would be very difficult to save these incredible creatures from extinction,' says Soisook.

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