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New Zealand Walking Bat Has Ancient Heritage

A bizarre New Zealand bat that is as much at home walking four-legged on the ground as winging through the air had an Australian ancestor 20 million years ago with the same rare ability, a new study has found. The discovery overturns a long-held held view that the agile walking and climbing skills of the lesser short-tailed bat--Mystacina tuberculata--evolved in the absence of any ground-dwelling mammal competitors or predators, says an international team of researchers led by Dr Suzanne Hand, a bat expert at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Along with the American common vampire bat--Desmodus rotundus--the New Zealand bat is one of only two of 1,100 bat species worldwide that has a true four-legged walking gait when maneuvering on the ground. It uses its wings as forelegs. Its thumb and toe claws have a unique extra talon for extra grip, plus a system of adhesive, gecko-like grooves in the soft, deeply wrinkled soles of its feet. The team has found that other special muscle and bone adaptations were also present in one of its extinct rainforest-dwelling Australian ancestors, fossils of which have been found at the rich Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Site in north-west Queensland, it says in a report published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. "The lesser short-tailed bat seems to be the sole survivor of an ancient Australian lineage now found only in New Zealand," said Dr Hand. "This study shows that, contrary to existing hypotheses, bats are not overwhelmingly absent from the ground because of competition from, or predation by, other mammals. Competition with other mammals and pressure from terrestrial predators does not deter modern vampire bats from walking. Likewise, the rich rainforest environment in which the ancestors of the mystacinid bats evolved in ancient Australia was teeming with ground-based competitors and predators." [Press release 1] [BMC abstract] [BMC article]