Bats & Social Mechanisms Of Learning

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The social and vocal interactions of a colony of fruit bats competing for position in a sleeping cluster. By LEE HARTEN on Publish DateOctober 31, 2017. Photo by Mickey Samuni-Blank.

Yesterday’s topic touched on a taboo of sorts, but in the interest of furthering our understanding of one of the most remarkable organisms on the planet; today, likewise, thanks to Steph Yin for her note on creatures sometimes considered creepy but whose environmental services are remarkably valuable:

Teaching Bats to Say ‘Move Out of My Way’ in Many Dialects

I was raised by grandparents who spoke only Mandarin, so I did not speak English until I went to preschool in Philadelphia. There, guided by English-speaking teachers and surrounded by toddlers babbling in loose English, I adopted the new language quickly.

Young bats may not be so different.

Wild fruit bats, living in crowded roosts, are exposed to calls from hundreds of fellow bats from birth. Most often these calls are made in response to unsolicited physical contact, and essentially amount to a crabby “move out of my way.” In a study published Wednesday in PLOS Biology, a team of Israeli researchers found that bat pups match their vocalizations to the group sounds they are immersed in, even if this “dialect” differs from that of their mothers.

Human babies and toddlers pick up the utterances around them effortlessly. The ability, called vocal learning, is considered critical for our spoken language.

But vocal learning has rarely been proven to exist in animals other than humans or songbirds, said Yossi Yovel, a neuroecologist at Tel Aviv University who led the study with graduate students Yosef Prat and Lindsay Azoulay.

In nonhuman mammals, much of the evidence for vocal learning “comes from animals that imitate human speech or other artificial sounds,” such as a zoo elephant emulating the Korean spoken by his keepers, Mr. Prat said. What he and his colleagues wanted to know was how an animal learns the sounds of its own species.

To start, the scientists captured 14 wild pregnant Egyptian fruit bats, a highly social and vocal species commonly found in the Middle East. Each mother gave birth in one of three chambers…

Read the whole story here.

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