The Emerald Isle used to be home to 10 bat species. Now there appear to only be nine. Brandt's bat, a species not identified by science until 1970 and not seen in Ireland since 2003, has been declared probably extinct in that country by researchers at the Center for Irish Bat Research (CIBR), a research partnership between University College Dublin (U.C.D.) and Queen's University Belfast, which spent the past two years looking for the animal.

Brandt's bat still exists in nearby England, Europe and throughout Asia, but its disappearance from the Irish countryside presents a cautionary tale about that country's bats and the fate of these animals around the world.

Brandt's bat escaped scientific classification for a long time because they look almost identical to another species, the whiskered bat (M. mystacinus). But the two are completely different genetically, U.C.D. researcher Daniel Buckley said in a prepared release.

Because of this morphological similarity, 2003 was both the first and last time that Brandt's bats were officially identified in Ireland. To determine the true population of both the Brandt's and whiskered bats, CIBR researchers set out to examine all known whiskered bat roosts and identify new ones. DNA analysis was then used to see if the whiskered population had been overestimated and the Brandt's population had been underestimated.

But instead of finding more Brandt's bats, the research team only found whiskered bats. Not a single M. brandtii was found. The research will be published this month in the journal Acta Chiropterologica.

"Our conclusions on updating the status of this species in Ireland were that either this specimen was vagrant to the island [of Ireland] or that this species is very rare and possibly endangered," says the CIBR's Emma Boston, a postdoctoral research assistant at U.C.D.

So if the Brandt's bat had been present all along, what killed it off? Boston points to the historic deforestation of Ireland (pdf), which eliminated more than 99 percent of the country's woodland cover by the end of the 19th century. "In Ireland, we are suggesting, not a recent extinction but an historical population decline," Boston says. "We suggest it is likely that a woodland bat species, such as the Brandt's bat, may have once been more abundant in Ireland, but as a result of woodland clearance, and thus loss of foraging habitat and roosting opportunities, are now extremely rare." In fact, she theorizes that Ireland may have lost other bat species in the past century before they were even classified andcounted.

Boston says that one way to continue research into Ireland's historic bat biodiversity is to examine ancient bat bones found deep in the country's caves.

The CIBR team now plans further surveys to try to prove once and for all if the Brandt's bat still exists in Ireland, if it ever did at all.

Photo via Wikipedia