Resolving the taxonomic status of ecologically keystone and threatened bats in New Guinea

A project undertaken at the South Australian Museum and supervised by Kyle Armstrong

Project team:

Dr Kyle Armstrong (South Australian Museum; The University of Adelaide), Dr Ken Aplin (Smithsonian Institution), Dr Bastien Llamas (Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, The University of Adelaide)

The bat fauna of New Guinea appears to be reasonably well known, but biological surveys still encounter forms potentially new to science, as well as species that are part of groups with prevailing unresolved and problematic taxonomy.  Both clearly recognisable unnamed forms, plus species containing cryptic forms and for which identification is unreliable, are encountered frequently in environmental impact assessments for development projects.  The potential for negative impacts of development on these taxa is difficult to assess because their potential presence outside project areas is complicated by taxonomic uncertainty.

Most bat groups in New Guinea have never been subject to modern taxonomic methods that include genetic markers.  We are applying next-generation DNA sequencing techniques to selected problematic groups: 1. those that have long been known to contain taxonomic issues; and 2. forms encountered by us in recent years that represent potential cryptic species.

This focus includes several genera of small fruit-eating bats, the bent-winged bats, small sheath-tailed bats and several genera of other insect-eating echolocating bats.  The anticipated outcomes of the project include a better understanding of both the taxonomy and distribution of New Guinea bats, more informed environmental impact assessments and conservation plans, and a net increase in the number of described species for the island. 

Figures. Representatives of some focal New Guinea bat groups that have prevailing taxonomic problems. From top: tube-nosed fruit bats, bent-winged bats, leaf-nosed bats and short-winged bats (all photos by Stephen Richards).