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Philippine fruit bats ‘different species’ from Southeast Asian counterparts

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By Gabriela Baron

Fruit bats in the Philippines revealed high genetic difference among island groups and are different compared to bats in the Southeast Asian regions — which mean they may be a new species of their own, a recent study established.

A study published in the Philippine Journal of Science revealed that five of the bat species native to the country have six to seven percent genetic distance from their counterparts in Southeast Asia.

Lesser short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx) (Wikimedia Commons / MANILA BULLETIN)

Lesser short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx) (Wikimedia Commons / MANILA BULLETIN)

The long-tongued nectar bat, Geoffroy’s rousette, white-collared fruit bat, and the lesser shorter-nosed fruit bat were found to have a high six percent genetic difference from specimens of the same species in the region.

A two to three percent difference is the usual benchmark to identify separate species; for bats, the threshold is 2 percent.

“[Six to seven percent] means that it’s already a very different population,” Lead researcher Adrian Luczon told Mangobay News.

Researchers covered 19 of the 27 fruit bat species native to the Philippines. They were assessed using a DNA bar coding technology in a six-year study.

“Most of the species collected in the Philippines show barcode sequences that are unique,” the study said, adding that only the cave nectar bat and the small flying fox have similar genetics across the same species in the region.

The Philippine pygmy fruit bat, endemic to the country, has different genetics in each island where it occurs in the Philippines — a possibility that it might either be a subspecies or an entirely new species, the researchers suggest.

Luczon explained that bat species in the Philippines might be “more threatened than initially classified” and that there might be “a need for species reassessment.”

He noted that bats are “difficult to study” because they are hard to find. They are well-hidden in caves and forests.

“These bats are either forest- or cave-dwelling so if their habitats are threatened, it’s harder to locate them and get samples,” Luczon added.

There are 79 listed bat species in the Philippines, of which 38 are endemic and at least 12 are threatened.

“If you want to do a conservation program, you might want to create a unique conservation program to implement in each area. Blanket conservations are hard because the needs and threats for each species varies,” Luczon ended.

Based on the records by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the number of new bat species grew by 35 percent in 2019.

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