(CNN)Four new species of African leaf-nosed bats have been discovered, and they're related to the horseshoe bats that have become known as the host for novel coronavirus.
The new bat species were announced in a study published Wednesday in a special issue of the journal ZooKeys, focused on the pandemic.
Identifying individual species of bats and understanding more about them is crucial to providing a foundation for information related to the spread of diseases like Covid-19.
Learning more about bats, both the benefits they offer as well as how they carry and transmit diseases to humans, is key to protecting both bats and humans, the researchers said. Although much attention is being focused on bats as carriers of disease at the moment, they also pollinate crops, disperse seeds and eat insects like mosquitoes.
But bats remain largely mysterious to us. Researchers estimate that we've only identified 25% of all bat species in the last 15 years. They're difficult to locate and study, so we lack information about where they live, how they evolved and their true role in the world around them.
"Bats are small, nocturnal and use high-frequency sound and smell to identify their species to other bats," said Bruce Patterson, lead study author and Macarthur curator of mammals at Chicago's Field Museum, in an email. "Because we are large, diurnal and reliant on vision (and lower-frequency sounds), we can't read their signals very precisely. The real diversity of bats has really opened up in the last 25 years with DNA sequence and ultrasonic recorder technology that helps us recognize the signals bats are using."
The new bat species were actually discovered largely based on museum specimens that were collected in Africa over the last few decades.
Leaf-nosed bats live in Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, but the species in Africa haven't been studied as much because the areas where they live are inaccessible. They get their name from unique skin flaps on their noses that act like radar to help them catch insects and orient their signals to others.
The researchers used DNA to study the museum specimens of leaf-nosed bats and realized that although some of them appeared very similar to known species, they were genetically different.
"The most surprising thing to me about this study was that we failed to find much genetic support for long-recognized species, and found trenchant differences existing within what had been considered a single species," Patterson said.
Preparing for potential virus vectors
The new species haven't been named yet. And the researchers want to follow up their work by looking for patterns in their anatomy, echolocation calls and the parasites they carry.