200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 79: “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a…fruit bat? ”

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photo of a flying fox skull
Skull of the Somoan flying fox (Pteropus allenorum) originally collected by Henry Clay Caldwell in 1856.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a…fruit bat?

In 2006 Smithsonian researcher and fruit bat expert Kristofer M. Helgen was browsing the Academy’s Mammalogy Collection when he stumbled upon a fruit bat skull he didn’t recognize. Henry Clay Caldwell collected this skull and fragmentary skin of this fruit bat, also known as a small Samoan flying fox, or Pteropus allenorum, in 1856 on the island of Upolu (Independent Samoa). This fruit-eating megabat had a wingspan of at least two feet, and it weighed about eight ounces when it was alive. Through analyzing the specimen and considering the location in which it was collected, Helgen was able to recognize this now extinct bat as a new species; in other words, it’s a species that scientists had not identified as unique compared to other similar fruit bats.

“Finding a new species like this one in a scientific collection adds to our knowledge of the diversity of the species,” says Vertebrate Biology Collection Manager Ned Gilmore. “New species are discovered in scientific collections all the time, but you have to be an expert in a group to recognize subtle differences in its species.” These kinds of discoveries remind us about the value of scientific collections and their care, he says.

Want to see more cool items from our collections? Save the date for Bicentennial Weekend, March 24 and 25, 2012, and be among the first to see our future exhibit, The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery.

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