Ever wonder what bats say to each other in their caves? Well, thanks to a new study by Prof. Yossi Yovel from Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology, we are closer to understanding how and what they communicate. The study involved recording the sounds made by 22 Egyptian fruit bats over 75 days, resulting in a database of 15,000 squeaks, squawks and other vocalizations.
It soon became clear to the professor that the cacophony of sounds heard from a bat cave are not haphazard; they are all part of an intricate pattern of audible communication. Still, researchers were only able to categorize 60% of bat sounds, with the leftover 40% remaining a mystery.
Surprisingly, most of the 60% of catalogued noises were found to be arguments. What do bats argue about? Food, most commonly, but also things like sleeping position and personal space. That's right, even bats need some room to budge!
Astoundingly, researchers recorded an entire category of noises that bats make when a male individual initiates unwanted mating advances. Looks like lady bats and lady humans have something in common- now and then they both have to say "hey, back off, mister!"
The study was an unprecedented success and yielded lots of new information, the magnitude of which surprised even the researchers themselves.
“We generated a massive amount of data — dozens of calls over three months... We have found that bats fight over sleeping positions, over mating, over food or just for the sake of fighting. To our surprise, we were able to differentiate between all of these contexts in complete darkness, and we are confident bats themselves are able to identify even more information and with greater accuracy — they are, after all, an extremely social species that live with the same neighbors for dozens of years.” - Prof. Yovel
Interestingly, the information this study affords us may shed light on communication between members of our very own species. Bats and humans have some surprising similarities: like us, bats are able to recognize and address specific individuals in their language, and are among only a handful of known species who have that ability. As Mr. Yovel shares;
“Studying how much information is conveyed in animal communication is important if you’re interested in the evolution of human language... Specifically, one big unknown in the world of animal communication is their grasp on semanticity — i.e., when you hear the word ‘apple’ you immediately imagine a round, red fruit. We found, in our research, that bat calls contain information about the identities of the caller and the addressee, which implies that there is a recognition factor. We were also able to discern the purpose and the context of the conversation, as well as the possible outcome of the ‘discussion.'”