Baby Bats Can Learn Foreign Languages - or at Least Dialects, Israeli Scientists Find

Baby bats listen and learn from an entire colony of several hundred bats, not just from their parents

Fruit bats hang in a cage at a bat shelter created by animal activist Nora Lifschitz, Elah Valley, Israel.
Fruit bats hang in a cage at a bat shelter created by animal activist Nora Lifschitz, Elah Valley, Israel. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Fish have feelings, it turns out, and cats are smart even if they ignore you. Now, Tel Aviv University has proven language acquisition capabilities in baby bats.

Put otherwise, bats have language, Dr. Yossi Yovel and his students Yosef Prat and Lindsay Azoulay reported in their paper, “Crowd vocal learning induces vocal dialects in bats,” published in PLoS Biology.

As children, we learn language from others, but the ability to learn vocalization had not been widely recognized in animals, Yovel explains. “The most common animal models for this ‘vocal learning’ are songbirds, which learn songs from specific tutors. Bird researchers usually emphasize that a bird learns to sing from one parent.”

Now they have demonstrated that baby bats listen and learn from an entire colony of several hundred bats, not just from their parents, Yovel says: “In other words, young bats pick up the dialect vocalized by their surrounding roost-mates.”

And how do they know this? The team raised 14 bat pups with their mothers in three different colonies. In each of these colonies, the scientists played three specific subsets from a collection of recordings of natural bat vocalizations over speakers. They did this for a whole year, until the youngsters had reached adulthood.

Although the babies were raised with their mothers and were exposed to their mothers’ “normal” dialect, each group developed a dialect resembling that of the batty crowd to which it was exposed through the recordings, Prat says.

What differences are we speaking of, so to speak? Yovel compares bat dialect differences to London versus Scottish accents: “The pups eventually adopted a dialect that was more similar to the local ‘Scottish’ dialect than to the ‘London’ accent of their mothers.”

Previous research by others has shown that bats not only use their squeaks to echolocate, giving rise to the fallacy that they can see in the dark – they also squeal to communicate with one another. Or, as the scientists put it, “echolocation conveys social information.”

So can bats learn their equivalent of French? Can they acquire a new dialect to the extent that they can integrate into foreign colonies? Stay tuned.