18th-century painting unravels Extinction mystery

29 04 2011

The lost sketchbook of an obscure British artist has shed
light on a decades-old scientific mystery.

“This is an incredibly exciting discovery,” enthuses Professor
Simon Neels, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California. “This
solution was like a bolt from the blue.”

The sketchbook was purchased at a recent London auction by a
collector, who passed it on to the University in his home country as soon as he
realised its significance.

“We never thought that an old drawing would tell us the fate
of the Silverhenge Bat,” says Professor Neels.

The Silverhenge bat lived around south-eastern England up
until the late eighteenth century, when the entire species mysteriously
vanished. The last recorded sighting of a Silverhenge was in 1893. The bats’
extinction has long baffled scientists as Jundiper trees, which provided the
bats’ main food supply through their nuts, disappeared from eastern England at
around the same time, despite flourishing nationwide only a few decades before.
But the lost sketchbook, by little-known Scottish artist William Bandslay, has
revealed the true cause of the species’ demise.

“To put it quite simply, competition,” explains Neels. “From
a creature known as the Skandler’s bat. We’re actually quite embarrassed that
we never considered this before, but the Skandler’s isn’t found in the area
today, so it just wasn’t an avenue we thought to explore.”

It turns out that the Skandler’s bat migrated to southern
England and probably began quickly outperforming the Silverhenge – as well as
taking its place as the distributor of Jundiper seeds.

“Unfortunately, the Skandler’s gastric juices, unlike the
Silverhenge’s, render the seeds infertile. So the tree, and both bat types,
died out,” Neels says. “We made the connection when we saw the sketch dated 12th
June, 1889. It shows Skandler’s and Silverhenge bats both circling a dead
Jundiper tree.”

And as for the real-world significance of the discovery?
Neels says he hopes that this will show young people how practical science is,
and also the size of the repercussions of small events like migrations can have.

“I hope that this will get more kids interested in science
throughout the world,” he concludes.

Paul

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