There are 21 known species of African yellow house bats—small, insect-eating critters known for their fluffy yellow bellies. But as Mindy Weisberger of Live Science reports, there may be some new additions to the family. A new study published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution describes two previously unknown species of African yellow house bats found in Kenya.
The researchers behind the new study didn’t set out to discover a new species of Scotophilus, as African yellow house bats are formally known. Instead, the team wanted to bring some order to the classification of these animals. Though Scotophilus bats were first identified around 200 years ago, records that describe the animals are “rife with identification errors,” the study authors write in their report. And it wasn’t clear how different species within the genus were related to one another.
“We were using three different names for these bats in the field,” Bruce Patterson, a curator at Chicago’s Field Museum and a co-author of the new report, says in a statement.
It’s easy to understand why the classification of African yellow house bats is a bit tangled; in general, bats are difficult to study. As Annie Roth of National Geographic explains, many species dwell in remote locations, and they can carry diseases that make them dangerous to humans. There are also a lot of bats flitting about across the globe. With over 1,200 known species, bats make up about 20 percent of the world’s mammals, and physical differences between species can be subtle.
African yellow house bats, which are widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, tend to live in urban environments, hence their "house bat" name. But Terry Demos, a postdoctoral fellow at the Field Museum and the lead author of the study, tells Roth that even still, the critters are “fairly cryptic,” or hard to find in the wild. Their bellies can range from yellow to brown to orange, but many species otherwise look quite similar. Researchers didn’t realize that they had two unknown African yellow house bats on their hands until they analyzed the creatures’ DNA.
Using skin samples collected from 100 bats in Kenya, along with information stored in an online genetic database, the team compared DNA sequences and began to piece together a Scotophilus family tree. Their work not only helped create a more organized tree for the bats, but also eventually revealed two distinct genetic lineages.
Before the bats can be formally classified as new species, the team will have to show that they also exhibit unique observable features—like behaviors and physical traits. But researchers are confident that they have found new species.
"It's cool,” Patterson says in the statement, “because [the genetic analysis] says there's a chapter of evolution that no one's stumbled across before.”