Vulcanops jennyworthyae
An artist's impression of a New Zealand burrowing bat. Gavin Mouldey.

Researchers have uncovered the fossils of a giant burrowing bat which lived in modern day New Zealand between 19 and 16 million years ago.

Remains of the extinct animal – which is three times the size of most modern bats – was found near the town of St. Bathans in Central Otago on the South Island.

The animal becomes the biggest burrowing bat known to science. As well as being able to fly, burrowing bats – which are now only found in New Zealand – are able to walk on all fours, enabling them to forage for food on the forest floor.

"Burrowing bats are more closely related to bats living in South America than to others in the southwest Pacific," said Sue Hand, from the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

"They are related to vampire bats, ghost-faced bats, fishing and frog-eating bats, and nectar-feeding bats, and belong to a bat superfamily that once spanned the southern landmasses of Australia, New Zealand, South America and possibly Antarctica."

The new species has been named Vulcanops jennyworthyae after Jenny Worthy, one of the researchers who found the fossils, and Vulcan the Roman god of fire and volcanoes – referring to the New Zealand's position on the Ring of Fire and the Vulcan Hotel in the town of St. Bathans.

Modern day burrowing bats in New Zealand are renowned for their broad diet, which includes spiders, fruit, flowers and nectar.

"Vulcanops's specialized teeth and large size suggest it was capable of eating even more plant food, as well as small vertebrates," Hand said.

Vulcanops became extinct, along with many other animal species in New Zealand, sometime in the early Miocene period (between 23 and 15 million years ago), probably due to the cooling and drying climate.

There are now just two bat species left on the island – which incidentally are the only native land mammal species in the country. All other modern mammals in New Zealand have been introduced by humans in the last 800 years.

The new findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.