Extinct Papua New Guinea Big-Eared Bats Not So Extinct After All

Papua New Guinea

The New Guinea big-eared bat (Pharotis imogene) has not been seen in Papua New Guinea for more than 100 years. Listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as a critically endangered species, the bat was presumed to be extinct. In light of recent researched published by the Australian Museum on May 28, the tiny microbat may not be so extinct after all. The bat’s name is due to its ears, which are almost double the size of its face. 

Catherine Hughes and Julie Broken-Brow, student researchers from the University of Queensland, were conducting studies on the echolocation used by Papua New Guinea’s microbats.  The two had no idea that one of the 41 bats representing nine known species that they had trapped in July 2012 was the New Guinea big-eared bat. The bat, captured in a grassland area of Papua New Guinea which had previously been rainforest land until loggers cleared the area of trees, was euthanized and catalogued as an unidentified species. It remained so for almost two years at the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery.

Although the specimen resembled the small-toothed bat, which also has large ears and a distinct nose structure, researchers were able to verify the species as the Pharotis imogene due to the unique curve of its nose, the bare skin over the nostrils, its earlobes and the size of the ears themselves. The New Guinea big-eared bat represents the only identified member of its genus, and is listed at number 32 on the London Zoological Society’s Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) list, on which appear a number of the world’s most threatened species.

Only when a researcher with the Australian Museum, Dr. Harry Parnaby, who co-authored the study, asked to borrow the unidentified bat was it discovered to be the Pharotis imogene. According to co-author of the study, Dr. Luke Leung, the last time the New Guinea big-eared bat was seen was in 1890, approximately 120 km west of Kamali, where the bat had been identified and collected by an Italian scientist some 124 years ago. The bat is extremely small, which makes it much harder to spot in the wild.

In 2007, another animal which was seemingly extinct made a reappearance when the La Palma giant lizard was spotted after 500 years of being thought to be extinct. The researchers involved in the rediscovery of the bat are urging immediate field surveys in order to determine the population of the elusive bat species in order to properly define its conservation status. Also of utmost importance is to determine how the New Guinea big-eared bat was able to fly under the radar, so to speak, for such a long time, which is exceptionally remarkable given the forestry and mining projects that have taken place in the area. Logging persists in the rainforest areas of Papua New Guinea, which may have a negative effect on the bats’ natural habitat.

Controversy exists in the world of research regarding whether it is necessary to euthanize animals for study and if it could further population decline among endangered species. Critics of the practice believe that modern technology and digital imaging are advanced enough to be used in place of the actual animals. Hughes and Broken-Bow state that the New Guinea big-eared bat was euthanized ethically.

By Jennifer Pfalz


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