[Skip to content] [Skip to main navigation] [Skip to user navigation] [Skip to global search] [Accessibility information] [Contact us]

Specimen of the Month: Greater Horseshoe Bat

This month, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, takes a look at the greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum). 

Pigeonholing

You often hear people talk of the Latin name for an animal to refer to the Genus and Species, such as Homo sapien for a human. However, many of these scientific names actually stem from Greek. The scientific name for the genus of the greater horseshoe bat is Rhinolophus. Rhino comes from Greek, and means nose. Lophus is also Greek, and means crest. If you take a look at the greater horseshoe bat in the image below, you’ll see the logic behind a scientific name which means ‘nose crest’. Another example is the rhinoceros, which happens to be both the common name and the scientific name for the Genus. The name rhinoceros stems from Greek and means ‘nose horn’. It’s all very logical.

When referring to the Genus and Species of an animal, the correct term is the ‘binomial name’, which is Latin (not Greek) for ‘two names’. This worked perfectly until we realised evolution had ruined everything by proliferating beyond Genus and Species, at which point we had to introduce a third name for these ‘Subspecies’. When referring to a Subspecies, the correct term is trinomial, which is Latin for ‘three names’. Subspecies tend to occur when two populations of the same species are separated for a significant period of time by some geographical boundary, and subsequently evolve different traits, yet remain so closely related that they’re still considered to be the same species. The greater horseshoe bat has several subspecies (currently thought to be six), only one of which occurs in the UK: Rhinolophus ferrumequinum ferrumequinum.

Scientists, such as myself, are very fond of such semantics. However I’m sure not everyone reading this will be so… let’s move on.

  • Greater horseshoe bat, Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.

Is that a moth I hear before me?

Whilst the binomial name for the greater horseshoe bat is very nice, the bat cares way more about its stomach, for which the nose crest comes in again. As with all Microchiropterans (Microbats), the greater horseshoe bat uses echolocation to find dinner. Echolocation is a system that does exactly what is says on the tin. A bat will emit a series of sounds from its voice box, which echo back when they hit an insect (or anything else), thus allowing the bat to locate it. The nose crest and impressive large satellite dish-esque ears evolved to make the bat extra proficient at picking up the sounds as they echo back in its direction. Beyond location, echolocation also lets the greater horseshoe bat know the size and shape of the object in front of it, meaning it knows, "moth - edible" and "brick wall - inedible".

  • Greater horseshoe bat, Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.

Trophy wall

Bats are overachievers and as a group claim many wildlife records. An obvious one is that they are the only mammals in the world capable of powered flight. There are other contenders, or should I say pretenders, to the Flying Mammal Throne. The vast majority come from Southeast Asia where being a small gravity-bound mammal appears to be a dangerous past time. These mammals have accomplished gliding, or directional falling at a slow-pace, as it would be called if bats had written the text book rather than humans. The sugar glider hands-down wins Most Gorgeous Thing Ever*, however it is still just a furry glorified glider. The only other animals to have achieved powered flight are birds (crown group dinosaurs) and pterosaurs (not dinosaurs at all).

Having done my research for this blog I can tell you no one seems to know how many species of bat there are for certain; estimates range from 1100 to 1300. However whichever end of the scale it actually is, they still win the award for being the Largest Group of Mammals in the World. Not only that, bats make up around a fifth of the world’s mammal species. Some countries will have more non-bat-mammal species than 80% and others will have less, according to the habitats they have available. However the UK, in case you were wondering, is spot on with the world average, i.e. 1 in every 5 mammal species in the UK is a bat.

My personal favourite is that one of their number claims the title Smallest Mammal in the World. The bumblebee bat just about reaches 3 cm in total length and weighs only 2 grams. This means I put the equal weight of two bats in my tea every morning, which makes me think I should start using sweetner.

Incredibly, this entire species was unknown to science until it was first described and given a binomial name (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) in 1974. It is only known to exist in 43 caves, split between Myanmar and Thailand, which means disturbance from over excited wildlife tourists is a problem that local wildlife groups are having to constantly monitor.

  • Indian flying fox, The largest bats are called Megabats. These species, such as this Indian flying fox, have large eyes, small ears, and a fox-like face, making them look very different from the Microbats that echolocate.
    The largest bats are called Megabats. These species, such as this Indian flying fox, have large eyes, small ears, and a fox-like face, making them look very different from the Microbats that echolocate.

* Sadly the pet trade has cottoned on to this but I could write an enormous blog on why you should NOT own one in captivity.

References