Dozens of unidentified bat species likely live in Asia – and could host new viruses

Trefoil Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus trifoliatus) show from below whilst roosting in Malaysia

There could be more species of horseshoe bat than previously thought.Credit: Chien Lee / Nature Picture Library

A genomic analysis suggests that there are probably dozens of unknown species of horseshoe bats in southeast Asia1.

Horseshoe bats (Rhinolophidae) are considered the reservoir of many zoonotic viruses – which jump from animals to humans – including the close relatives of the viruses that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome and COVID-19. Identifying bat species correctly might help pinpoint geographical hotspots with a high risk of zoonotic disease, says Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. “This work is important,” she says.

The study was published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution on 29 March.

Better identification of unknown bat species could also support the search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 by narrowing down where to look for bats that may harbor close relatives of the virus, says study co-author Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong. The closest known relatives of SARS-CoV-2 have been found in Rhinolophus affinis bats in Yunnan province, in southwestern China2and in three species of horseshoe bat in Laos3.

Cryptic species

Hughes wanted to better understand the diversity of bats in southeast Asia and find standardized ways of identifying them. So she and her colleagues captured bats in southern China and southeast Asia between 2015 and 2020. They took measurements and photographs of the bats’ wings and noseleaf – “the funky set of tissue around their nose”, as Hughes describes it – and recorded their echolocation calls. They also collected a tiny bit of tissue from the bats’ wings to extract genetic data.

To map the bats’ genetic diversity, the team used mitochondrial DNA sequences from 205 of their captured animals, and another 655 sequences from online databases – representing a total of 11 species of Rhinolophidae. As a general rule, the greater the difference between two bats’ genomes, the more likely the animals represent genetically distinct groups, and therefore different species.

The researchers found that each of the 11 species were probably actually multiple species, possibly including dozens of hidden species across the whole sample. Hidden, or ‘cryptic’, species are animals that seem to belong to the same species but are actually genetically distinct. For example, the genetic diversity of Rhinolophus sinicus suggests that the group could be six separate species. Overall, they estimated that some 40% of the species in Asia have not been formally described.

“It’s a sobering number, but not terribly surprising,” says Nancy Simmons, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Rhinolophid bats are a complex group and there has been only a limited sampling of the animals, she says.

However, relying on mitochondrial DNA could mean that the number of hidden species is an overestimate. That is because mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother, so could be missing important genetic information, says Simmons. Still, the study could lead to a burst of research into naming new bat species in the region, she says.

Further evidence

The findings corroborate other genetic research suggesting that there are many cryptic species in southeast Asia, says Charles Francis, a biologist at the Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment and Climate Change Canada, in Ottawa, who studies bats in the region. But, he says, the estimates are based on a small number of samples.

Hughes’ team used the morphological and acoustic data to do a more detailed analysis of 190 bats found in southern China and Vietnam and found that it supported their finding that many species had not been identified in those regions. The study makes a strong argument for “the use of multiple lines of evidence when delineating species”, says Simmons.

Hughes says her team also found that the flap of tissue just above the bats’ nostrils, called the sella, could be used to identify species without the need for genetic data. Gábor Csorba, a taxonomist at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest, says this means that hidden species could be identified without doing intrusive morphology studies or expensive DNA analyzes.

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