Researchers decode bat talk, find they argue about surprisingly specific problems

December 28, 2016, 8 a.m.
Egyptian fruit bats
Photo: Ivan Kuzmin/Shutterstock

According to a new study, bats bicker. But they aren't just yelling at each other in a general way. Rather, they have specific calls that address particular issues on an individual level.

Neuroecologist Yossi Yovel and his team recorded the calls of a group of 22 Egyptian fruit bats — a highly social species of bat — for 75 days. They then plugged around 15,000 of the calls into a machine learning algorithm and used it to learn more about what the bats were saying to each other.

It turns out that Egyptian fruit bats have calls for specific problems, whether that is an argument over food, space in the roost or even unwanted romantic advances. Not only do they have calls for certain categories of problems, but they'll even adjust their call depending upon to whom they're speaking.

Smithsonian Magazine reports:

[O]nly dolphins and a handful of other species are known to address individuals rather than making broad communication sounds... “We have shown that a big bulk of bat vocalizations that previously were thought to all mean the same thing, something like ‘get out of here!’ actually contain a lot of information,” Yovel tells Nicola Davis at The Guardian. By looking even more carefully at stresses and patterns, Yovel says, researchers may be able to tease out even more subtleties in the bat calls. This isn't the end of the research, Yirka reports. Yovel and his team want to investigate whether bats are born knowing this 'language' or if they learn it over time while living in their colonies. They also want to know if the bats use similar communication outside the roost. To understand that, they will attach microphones to some bats and release them into the wild.

Bats may be able to teach us a good deal not only about what they're saying to one another, but potentially the nuances of communication in other species as well.