Bats have had a bad rap of late, but new research stands as a testament to the cute factor of the “puppers of the sky” by revealing baby bat babble is very similar to that of human babies. Previous research had already identified that bat moms did indeed speak to their young with an altered style of vocalizations that appeared to act as an equivalent to baby talk. Now, a new paper has, for the first time, formally analyzed baby bat babbling and confirmed that yes, it is similar in function to the (largely nonsensical) ramblings of human babies.
Published in the journal Science, the study focused on greater sac-winged bats (Saccopteryx bilineata), taking acoustic recording and observational findings from populations living in Panama and Costa Rica.
Identifying pups and parents was relatively easy as, despite their notoriety in recent global pandemics, bats are quite good at practicing social distancing. Adults violating the 5-8 centimeter (2-3 inch) rule were met with aggression. Pups were the only ones tolerated beyond this threshold which meant spotting them was easy.
The researchers were able to collect recordings of pups from birth to weaning using ultrasonic equipment that could pick up their squeaking so that the team could unpack what they were dealing with back at the lab. In total, they collected recordings from 20 bat pups across three months of their early development. Analyses revealed that there was clear evidence of babbling among the sac-wing pups, and that babbling is characterized by features that are exhibited by babbling human babies.
“In our study we detected the same eight key features used to describe human infant babbling in Saccopteryx bilineata pups,” co-author Dr Mirjam Knörnschild, head of the Behavioral Ecology and Bioacoustics Lab at the Museum of Natural History, Berlin, told IFLScience.
“The most salient features are repetition and rhythmicity, others include an early babbling onset, an non-linear acquisition of syllable types during the babbling period, a mix of adult-like and exclusively pup-like syllable types, the acquisition of only a subset of the adult syllable types, universal occurrence in all pups we studied and "meaninglessness" (babbling occurs without a clear social context or function).”
You might question the academic value of eavesdropping on a conversation between bats that is sometimes quite literally meaningless, but as the researchers point out in their paper, drawing parallels between unrelated species opens up doors for future research. It could be that in looking at the neurological and adaptive underpinnings of parent-baby gobbledygook, we reveal new insights into mammalian evolution and indeed ourselves.
As for the team’s next steps, they want to first learn more about how these “conversations” unfold among babbling bats.
“We found it fascinating that bat pups and humans use the same behavioral solution to solve a similar problem – the babble in order to master the control of their vocal apparatus, which enables them to produce complex vocalizations,” concluded Knörnschild. “In the future, we will focus on whether maternal feedback influences babbling in pups.”