Activate the Bat Signal! Bats Crowdsource Their Dialects

SCIENCE

Are mothers or the collective cacophony of the colony more effective in teaching young bats how to communicate? (National Geographic)

Go a little batty with our Creature Feature on nectar bats.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Although the bats in the study were reared in a lab, Egyptian fruit bats (like these in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda) can live in colonies of up to 50,000 individuals. We love the sly looks in this image from one of our favorite photogs!
Photograph by Joel Sartore

 

Discussion Ideas

  • New research documents how bats learn distinct “dialects.” What are bat dialects?
    • Bat dialects simply describe the pitch of bat vocalizations. Bats vocalize with their larynx (voice box) and mouth, and sound is emitted through their mouth and nose. Although most bat vocalizations are pitched out the of range of human hearing, they can emit calls “as low as 50 dB and as high as 120 dB, which is louder than a smoke detector 10 centimeters from your ear.” Learn more about real-life bat signals with this great article from Scientific American.
      • FYI: In human language, a dialect describes a distinct variation of a language, usually marked by accents and grammar.

 

 

  • How did researchers conduct their study of bat communication?
    • The experiment consisted of four major parts. Bat vocalizations were recorded and analyzed throughout the experiment.
      1. [R]esearchers caught 15 pregnant Egyptian fruit bats and took them into the lab. To control for potential genetic effects, they ensured that the mothers weren’t closely related.
      2. The team then split the mothers into three groups of five and put each group into one of three chambers, where the mothers gave birth to their young.”
      3. In addition to their mother’s calls, scientists piped in calls of wild Egyptian fruit bat colonies to the chambers. Each chamber had calls pitched to a different frequency—a different dialect.
      4. After 14 weeks, the bat mothers were released into the wild. (Don’t worry, researchers are also planning to release the young bats.)

 

 

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: How Baby Bats Learn to Speak in Dialects

Nature: How baby bats develop their dialects

Nat Geo: Featured Creature: Nectar Bats

Scientific American: How do bats echolocate and how are they adapted to this activity?

NPR: When Bats Squeak, They Tend To Squabble

(extra credit!) PLoS Biology: Crowd vocal learning induces vocal dialects in bats: Playback of conspecifics shapes fundamental frequency usage by pups

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