Sometimes research into one question reveals the answer to another. In July 2012 Catherine Hughes and Julie Broken-Brow, students at the University of Queensland in Australia, were in Papua New Guinea studying how the region's tiny microbats responded to sustainable logging of their forest homes. As part of the project, the scientists trapped and caught 41 bats from nine known species—as well as a female bat they could not immediately identify.

The specimen was brought back* to the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, where it sat for nearly two years. Then, in March of this year, Australian Museum researcher Harry Parnaby requested the bat for study and received it on loan. He looked it over, dug through the scientific record and established the unknown bat's identity: It was a New Guinea big-eared bat (Pharotis imogene), a species that had only been observed once before, way back in 1890. The bat is currently listed as “critically endangered (possibly extinct)” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and appears as number 32 on the Zoological Society of London's Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) list, which maps some of the world's rarest species. It is also the only known member of its genus.

Of course, conclusively identifying a species that hasn't been seen in 124 years is no easy task, especially when (as in this case) the only previously known sample used to describe it has long since disappeared. As recounted in the May 28 issue of Records of the Australian Museum, Parnaby was able to distinguish the rediscovered bat from other species by the curve of its nose, the size and lobes of its ears and the naked skin above its nostrils. Other than these relatively minor physical attributes the Pharotis bat looks quite similar to another local species, the small-toothed long-eared bat (Nyctophilus microdon). In fact, a specimen from this species was found in 1985 and initially misidentified as the big-eared bat until it was reexamined three years later.

Now that P. imogene has been rediscovered, the authors note that much remains to be learned about it. Part of Hughes and Broken-Brow's original work involved recording the echolocation calls of Papua New Guinea's bats. We still don't know what the big-eared bats sound like nor do we know anything about their ecology. What are their habitat requirements? What do they eat? How and where do they nest? How many of these rare bats remain? The authors wrote that "detailed surveys are needed to critically determine whether this species requires the proximity of both rainforest and more open habitats," which would help to determine regional forestry practices. They also note that earlier surveys of protected areas have never turned up any sign of this species. The bat was found in an unprotected area, so its habitats may be at risk. They recommend new surveys to establish the bat's distribution and abundance, additional acoustic studies to see if its echolocation calls can be identified and (if anyone gets that far) radio surveys to define their habitat and roosting requirements at various stages of their reproductive cycle.

As the authors note in a May 30 article for The Conversation, much of lowland Papua New Guinea's rainforests are being cut down for timber or to make way for development or agriculture. That practice could place additional pressures on the big-eared bats as well as other microbats in the region. In other words, we may not have another 120 years to save this rediscovered species.

*Editor’s Note: Many people ask whether scientists should kill and collect specimens, especially if the plant or animal species are rare or endangered. For instance, an April 18 paper in Science argued that field biology could contribute to extinction and that specimen collection is no longer necessary in the era of high-resolution photography and other data tools. A rebuttal published a few weeks later argued that scientific collection plays a vital role in conservation. In this particular case Hughes and Broken-Brow say their specimen was ethically euthanized for later study.

Photo: Catherine Hughes

Previously in Extinction Countdown: