Researchers estimate that we've only identified 25% of all bat species in the last 15 years. Credit: US National Park Service.

Bats remain largely mysterious to us. We blame them for spreading deadly viruses, yet we don’t really understand how or why that happens.

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.

This week, scientists learned a bit more about these mystifying creatures, as four new species of African leaf-nosed bats have been discovered, and, the experts say they’re related to the horseshoe bats in China that have become known as the host for novel coronavirus, CNN reported.

The new bat species were announced in a study published Wednesday in a special issue of the journal ZooKeys.

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, the CNN report said.

“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.

“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.”

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 CNN report said.

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 CNN report said.

The researchers used DNA to study leaf-nosed bats and realized that although some of them appeared very similar to known species, they were genetically different.

“None of these leaf-nosed bats carry a disease that’s problematic today, but we don’t know that that’s always going to be the case. And we don’t even know the number of species that exist,” said Terry Demos, study co-author and a post-doctoral researcher in Patterson’s lab.

Patterson concurred.

“With Covid-19, we have a virus that’s running amok in the human population,” he said. “It originated in a horseshoe bat in China. There are 25 or 30 species of horseshoe bats in China, and no one can determine which one was involved. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about them and their relatives.

“A bat species can carry only those viruses to which it has been exposed, and only so far as its range limits. So understanding who is out there and where they live constitutes a roadmap for the ecological connections that currently elude us in figuring out who was carrying SARS coV-2 in the wild.”

The new bat species were actually discovered largely based on museum specimens that were collected in Africa over the last few decades, the CNN report said.