Quirks & Quarks

Bats teach other bats what a good meal sounds like

Bats can find a new food source by learning from bats of another species
Fringe-lipped bat chowing down (Krista Patriquin)

Tale of two bats

Bat researchers had previously found some hints that bats exhibit "social learning" when it comes to learning about new food sources. They suspected that bats "listen in" to the hunting of others, picking up the sound of the prey, but also the sound of other bats capturing and eating it. This eavesdropping would allow them to learn which prey species other bats considered good eating. 

 Dr. Krista Patriquin, a post-doctoral fellow from the department of biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, set up an experiment studying two species of Panamanian bat the the fringe-lipped bat and the white-throated round-eared bat. By looking at two species she was able to investigate whether bats learned only from their own species — or from other kinds of bats as well. 

How to train a bat

The fringe-lipped bats were trained by slowly introducing a new sound — a high-pitch tone — over a familiar sound identified with food. Eventually the new sound becomes as familiar as the previously known sound. Then a bat that is naive to the new sound is introduced into the environment of the trained bat, and the tone sound is played. After only a few trials, many naive bats were able to learn from the trained bat that the sound represents the promise of a food reward. The researchers believe that the untrained bats may actually be cueing in on chewing noises made by the trained bats as it consumes its meal. The experiment determined that the trained fringe-lipped bat was able to teach its own species, as well as the round-eared species.         

How bats benefit

The researchers believe that this ability to learn from others may explain why bats have been so diverse and successful around the world. By observing others, bats have been able to avoid the time-consuming, potentially dangerous and energetically costly process of trial and error when it comes to finding sources of new food. Also, looking to cues from other species that have already gained experience, speeds up the process of adapting to new situations.