Sunday, July 12, 2009

New Bat Species from a 150-year-old Specimen

A new bat species was found among the many specimens sitting in jars in the archives of Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences.

Academy records show the bat was collected in 1856 by Henry Clay Caldwell of the Navy on the Samoan island of Upolu. It came into the possession of William S. W. Ruschenberger, a surgeon who at various times was president of the College of Physicians and of the academy. He donated it in 1857.

Yesterday, Ned Gilmore, manager of the academy's vertebrate zoology collection, brought out the animal's remains for a closer look.

He gingerly lifted the creature from its jar, unfolded its wings, and laid it on a white tray. The bat's skull has not yet been returned from the Smithsonian, but the furry skin of its head is here, with prominent dark eyes.

Those eyes worked in the 1850s. Unlike blind, insect-eating bats, the fruit-eating kind can't navigate by bouncing sound waves off objects.

Because it is believed to be the only one of its kind, the new Philadelphia bat will now serve as a "type" specimen - the official scientific example of that species. Gilmore tied a red ribbon on the jar to indicate the bat's new status.

The mammal is kept in a windowless room with eight rows of metal shelves, laden with 15,000 other specimens stored in jars of alcohol....

The creature had a wingspan of at least two feet, and it weighed a half-pound when alive. In the paper, published in the journal American Museum Novitates, Helgen identified a second, even larger bat species in the collection of the Smithsonian.

Helgen, whose coauthors include his wife, Lauren, and Smithsonian bat specialist Don Wilson, dubbed the academy's specimen Pteropus allenorum. They took the name in part from Allen Drew, an old friend who hosted them here.
The specimen was originally identified as a different species and kept that identification until some of the Academy's scientists looked at it more closely. The researchers think that the species is probably extinct, though their reasoning is not mentioned by the Inquirer. It seems like it would be hard to miss a creature with a two-foot wingspan, but if no one has known to look for it, it is possible that the bat has gone unidentified in the wild as well as in the jar.