Baby Bats Babble—Just Like Human Infants

Both species make similar sounds as they develop language skills at an early age

Bats Babble
Mother and pup of the bat species Saccopteryx bilineata. Similar to human infants, pups begin babbling at a young age as they develop language skills. Michael Stifter

Ask any mother: babies babble. It’s one of the first steps in developing language. However, humans are not the only species to do it. New research published in the peer-reviewed journal Science shows that baby bats babble as they begin developing their communication skills.

Scientists from Berlin's Museum of Natural History studying baby bats in Panama and Costa Rica at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute were surprised by how closely the flying mammals' early vocalizations resembled those of human infants.

They listened to pups—as baby bats are called—as they chortled away and identified eight key features similar to those of human babies. The vocalizations of baby bats include the repetition of syllables used by adults and the rhythmic use of sounds similar to the “da-da-da” made by human infants.

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“Even though there are millions of years of different evolutionary pathways between bats and humans, it’s astonishing to see such a similar vocal practice behavior leading to the same result — acquiring a large vocal repertoire,” study co-author Ahana Fernandez, an animal behavioral ecologist at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, tells Nature's Max Kozlov.

Fernandez and other researchers listened to 20 greater sac-winged bats (Saccopteryx bilineata) from birth through weaning for about three months. They made daily recordings of their “babbling bouts” of “long multisyllabic vocal sequences,” some lasting up to 43 minutes, reports Sara Spary of CNN.

“Bats are fascinating creatures, they are animals with highly complex social lives (and) many species live in stable perennial groups for their entire life,” Fernandez tells CNN. “What probably most people don't know is... that many (bat) species have sophisticated social vocal communication.”

The greater sac-winged bat is known for its speaking skills, using a series of high-pitched chirps and trills to communicate with others in the colony.

“These bats actually sing like songbirds,” Fernandez tells Victoria Gill of BBC News. “So they have very sophisticated vocal communication—a repertoire of distinct syllable types.”

Babbling is seen as a very early signpost on the road to language. Some scientists speculate that this vocalization began as a way for infants to get the attention of parents by demonstrating their fitness and intelligence. The only species currently known to babble include humans, songbirds and the greater sac-winged bat, reports Geof Brumfiel of NPR.

Per NPR, babies begin babbling to develop the mouth muscles necessary for language, says D. Kimbrough Oller, a professor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Memphis, who was not involved in the research.

“Once babbling is off the ground, it can supply a foundation for the adult of vocal capabilities that can be used for something else,” he tells NPR.

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