Last updated December 4, 2017 at 4:51 pm
Young bats learn how to talk by hearing what’s around them and not from their mothers, according to new research published in PLoS Biology.
It was thought that picking up a local accent or dialect from others was a skill unique to humans, however that has been thrown into question by this latest finding. Young bats were found to adopt a specific “dialect” spoken by their colony, even when this dialect differs from what their own mother uses.
The researchers raised 14 pups with their mothers across three different colonies. However, in these laboratory colonies the scientists used speakers to play three subsets of natural bat vocalizations previously recorded from hundreds of bats to mimic an entire colony. These recordings were played for a year until the pups reached adulthood.
Although the young bats were exposed to their mothers’ dialect and could communicate with her, each group of pups developed a dialect more closely resembling the one they were hearing through the recordings.
In the experiment the difference between the vocalizations of the mother bat and the colony were like the difference between an Australian accent and a New Zealand accent. The pups heard their mothers’ “Australian” dialect, but also heard the “New Zealand” dialect from dozens of bats through the recordings. The pups eventually started communicating using a dialect which was more like the “New Zealand” dialect used by the bats in the recordings than their own mother’s “Australian” dialect.
It’s not dissimilar to what might happen if a person grew up in a foreign country – they would speak more like the locals and less like their parents. “The ability to learn vocalizations from others is extremely important for speech acquisition in humans, but it’s believed to be rare among animals,” according to Yossi Yovel of Tel Aviv University, who led the research. “Researchers have believed that this is what makes human language unique.”
Songbirds are known to learn songs from others, however it is usually from a specific tutor which is one of their parents. But this study shows that bats listen and learn from an entire colony of several hundred bats, not just from their parents.
The next question for Yovel and his team, however, is whether the bats can pick up a local dialect and use it to mix into 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.”