Bats Squeak to Echolocate Prey and Gossip in Death Metal Growls, Researchers Find

Step aside, Mariah Carey: the Daubenton’s bat boasts an unmatched vocal range, spanning no less than seven octaves

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Myotis bechsteini
The Daubenton's bat, boasting a seven-octave vocal range and potential death-metal record deal.Credit: San Martin Gilles / Flickr
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Death metal is quite the genre. Never mind the lyrics that can’t even be printed here: there are band names that can’t be printed here.

It’s adorable when death metal bands turn coy with lyrics like “oxidized razor masticator” instead of “eater of rusty razor blades” (thank you, Revolver), but these are not melodies for the masses. And now the poor bat, maligned aviator of the night, is compared in a science paper to death metal chanteuses because, it turns out, they issue super-low-pitched growly calls when socializing.

Some bat species – not all – famously emit high-pitched squeaks when engaging in echolocation, notably when chasing insects. Now we learn that the echolocating insectivorous Daubenton’s bat boasts an unmatched vocal range, spanning no less than seven octaves, Coen Elemans at the University of Southern Denmark and colleagues explained in Plos Biology on Monday.

Your range is three or four octaves. Mariah Carey reportedly has an almost supernatural voice range, part of which only – reportedly – dogs can hear.

Unlike Carey, the Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii) turns out to boast discrete specialty throat equipment for ultra-high squeaks at the one end, and super-low rumbles ranging from 1 to 120 kilohertz at the other end. That is well beyond the range of any other mammal, insofar as is known.

So they squeak to find flying food and emit guttural growls when gossiping. And gossip, bats do. Unrelated work on Israeli bats has found that they chatter nonstop – not necessarily in low tones, by the way. A lot of what they have to say, the researchers assure us, is complaining.

How was their vocal range elucidated? The researchers removed the larynxes of five bats, mounted the tissue and filmed them at ultra-high speed, 250,000 frames per second, while flowing air over them to mimic natural bat-talk. The rest was computer work to reconstruct the motion of vocal membranes that were obscured by other structures in the actual bat.

The low end of the bat’s vocal scale turned out to be produced by folds of membrane above the vocal cords called “ventricular folds.”

If you are a Mongolian death metal throat singer, you may use your ventricular throat folds to produce the low frequencies too.

So, the bats have specialist laryngeal structures for different types of calls: echolocation versus gossiping with other bats, Elemans and the team report.

“We show that bats vibrate extremely thin and light membranes extending from their vocal folds to make their high-frequency ultrasonic calls for echolocation. To extend their limited lower vocal range, bats make aggressive calls with their ventricular folds – as in death metal growls,” the team states.

Daubenton's bat. Good name for a death metal band?Credit: Lennart Lennuk

Evolutionarily speaking, the team suggests, Daubenton’s bats experienced different selection pressures for echolocation (to hunt fast prey) and for interpersonal communication, resulting in the evolution of separate laryngeal structures that vastly expanded their vocal range to the wonder that it is today.

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