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A new species found in a jar

Old bat resurfaces at Academy of Natural Sciences.

Ned Gilmore of the Academy of Natural Sciences holds a jar containing Norway rats collected by Napoleon's nephew.
Ned Gilmore of the Academy of Natural Sciences holds a jar containing Norway rats collected by Napoleon's nephew.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

The furry, winged creature was shot down in the South Pacific and brought by ship to Philadelphia, where it was skinned and stored in a jar of alcohol alongside other curios of the Victorian era.

It was a kind of fruit bat, also called a flying fox for its foxlike face. Yet only now, after sitting on a shelf for more than 150 years, has it finally been "discovered" as a new species.

And it is probably extinct.

Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution came upon the unusual specimen during a 2006 visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences. After scouring the world's museums to ensure that there was nothing else like it, they published their finding last month, and this week it gained wider notice with publication online.

Natural history museums, like most nonprofits, have taken a financial hit in the shaky economy. But the new find is a reminder that they have riches of another kind: their collections.

There are museums with larger treasure troves of plants and animals, but few match the one in Philadelphia for its wealth of items from the early days of American science - thousands still awaiting formal scientific discovery and analysis.

Kristofer M. Helgen, lead author of the paper describing the new creature, said he came across the bat within an hour of arriving at the institution on Logan Square. It had been misidentified as another species, but he saw right away from the skull and teeth that it was different.

"I always knew there would be something special there at the academy," he said. "Of course, there's so much more that's still lurking there."

New species are discovered all the time, although less often with mammals and even less frequently with mammals that are already extinct. No one knows why this one seems to have disappeared.

"It's an unexpected tragedy that these things seem to be gone . . . before they've even been given their proper names," Helgen said yesterday.

Academy records show the bat was collected in 1856 by Henry Clay Caldwell of the Navy on the Samoan island of Upolu. It came into the possession of William S. W. Ruschenberger, a surgeon who at various times was president of the College of Physicians and of the academy. He donated it in 1857.

Yesterday, Ned Gilmore, manager of the academy's vertebrate zoology collection, brought out the animal's remains for a closer look.

He gingerly lifted the creature from its jar, unfolded its wings, and laid it on a white tray. The bat's skull has not yet been returned from the Smithsonian, but the furry skin of its head is here, with prominent dark eyes.

Those eyes were needed in the 1850s. Unlike insect-eating bats, the fruit-eating kind can't navigate by bouncing sound waves off objects.

Because it is believed to be the only one of its kind, the new Philadelphia bat will now serve as a "type" specimen - the official scientific example of that species. Gilmore tied a red ribbon on the jar to indicate the bat's new status.

The mammal is kept in a windowless room with eight rows of metal shelves, laden with 15,000 other specimens stored in jars of alcohol.

There are all manner of oddities: a two-headed baby pig, the brain of a rhinoceros, the eye of a killer whale, and the testicles of a hippopotamus. (Somewhat larger than the human variety, if you must know.)

Scientists identify a half- dozen new bat species each year, some in the wild and others just lying on museum shelves. But Helgen said it was unusual to find one this large.

The creature had a wingspan of at least two feet, and it weighed a half-pound when alive. In the paper, published in the journal American Museum Novitates, Helgen identified a second, even larger bat species in the collection of the Smithsonian.

Helgen, whose coauthors include his wife, Lauren, and Smithsonian bat specialist Don Wilson, dubbed the academy's specimen Pteropus allenorum. They took the name in part from Allen Drew, an old friend who hosted them here.

It was originally labeled as a different species, but that was back when few bats had been collected, and scientists had too few samples to sort into distinct groups.

A similar tale is told in the academy's current exhibit on geckos, where a placard describes how Aaron Bauer, a biologist at Villanova University, identified a new species in a French museum.

"We're always reevaluating," Bauer said. "As more material becomes available over time, it's really necessary to go back again and again and again," to reexamine existing finds.

And then there are the critters that have yet to be given any scientific name.

A few years ago, for example, a team of insect-hunters stopped by the academy and came up with eight new species of walking stick, said Jason Weintraub, manager of the museum's entomology collection. Thousands more insects in that collection remain to be identified, he said.

"There are more discoveries to be made behind the scenes," Helgen said. "I look forward to getting back to the academy and doing it more justice, and seeing what else unexpected is locked away in the cabinets."