The researchers played recordings of three varieties of natural bat vocalizations to each of the laboratory colonies: one recording per colony. They played the recordings to the bats for a period of one year, until the bats reached adulthood.
All throughout the research period, the young bats were exposed to their mothers’ normal dialects and could communicate accordingly. However, each colony developed a unique dialect similar to the one in the recording that had been played for it.
“The difference between the vocalizations of the mother bat and those of the colony are akin to a London accent and, say, a Scottish accent…The pups heard their mothers’ ‘London’ dialect but also heard the ‘Scottish’ dialect mimicked by many dozens of ‘Scottish’ bats.”
The bat pups in each colony gradually adopted a dialect that was more closely related to the ‘Scottish’ dialect they’d heard in the recordings than it was to their mothers’ ‘London’ dialect.
Until this point, social learning and transmission of vocalizations has been thought of as rare among animals, and instead, a mechanism more unique to human language acquisition. This research calls that distinction into question.
Songbirds are among the few animals who demonstrate a capacity for “vocal learning,” and studies usually find that birds learn to sing from one parent or the other. This bat study, however, shows that young bats learn their vocalizations by listening to an entire colony, not just their parents.
“In other words, young bats pick up the dialect vocalized by their surrounding roost-mates,” says Yovel.
The next step for researchers is to explore how the acquisition of a dialect affects the bats’ ability to join a foreign colony.
“Will they adopt the local dialect or will they be rejected by the group? Or maybe the local colony will change its dialect to adopt that of our bats…There are many interesting avenues yet to explore.”
The study was published in PLOS Biology and you can check it out here.
What do you think of these skillful bat linguists? Let us know in the comments section!
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