Baby bats babble like baby humans, new study shows

Three bats hanging on a rock look into the camera
Greater sac winged bats, Brazil, photo: Leo Mercon via Canva

Baby bats babble as much as baby humans, according to a new study published in the journal Science. They make their own ‘googoo-gaga’ noises.

Greater sac-winged bats, native to Central and South America, babble like human children to develop their voice in their younger years, the study published on Thursday showed.

Between 2015 and 2016, the babbling of 20 baby bats was recorded in Costa Rica and Panama by researcher Ahana Fernandez, who spent hours with the animals in the forest.

Bats communicate by ultrasound, sound waves at frequencies that humans can’t hear, but they can also make sounds audible to people.

“It sounds like a high pitched twittering to our ears… it’s melodic,” study co-author Mirjam Knornschild, a behavioural ecologist at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, told AFP. She has worked with bats since 2003.

The animals have a larynx, like humans do, and start babbling about three weeks after birth, for about 7 to 10 weeks. During this period, the bats spend around a third of their day babbling, with sessions lasting on average about seven minutes, the researchers calculated.

The vocalizations were converted into images, called spectrograms. “Each syllable has a very specific shape, so to say, and they are easy to distinguish by eye,” Knornschild explained.

The researchers analyzed more than 55,000 produced syllables. They found the same characteristics of human babbling in bats, like repetition, lack of meaning, and that the sounds followed a certain rhythm.

The researchers were able to show that fairly early on the young bats learned a six-syllable song used by males to mark their territory and attract females. “The pups listen to adult males singing and then imitate that song,” Knornschild said.

Very few other species babble, the researchers said, only some birds, two species of marmosets and perhaps some dolphins or beluga whales.

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