The Bat Whisperer

by Translation Guy on October 6, 2010

In another age, before air conditioning (or at least before we had AC), we used to stay outside on those hot Pennsylvania summer nights as late as we could. Back then, before White-nose Syndrome, there were clouds of bats chasing clouds of mosquitoes, and we would pitch pebbles to see them swoop and dive at our stony lures. We would only toss   a few, though, since we knew that the little guys had to stay on-task eating real bugs if they were to survive the night. Or at least that’s what we told each other at the time, with all the wisdom of fourth-graders.  It might even be true.

Bats use their voices to “see” their world with their ears. Their ultrasonic calls―some of them as loud as car alarms―echo off the world around them, painting a three-dimensional model of their surroundings.

“With this biological sonar they can zip around through the night sky, migrate hundreds of miles to a specific cave, feed on insects, detect a fish breaking the surface of the water just from the sound of the ripples and hear a beetle’s footsteps,” says UT researcher George Pollak, who worked with the private bat colony of bat lady biologist Barbara Schmidt-French.  She was observing very elaborate social communication in her little colony and wanted to learn more about what the bats were saying to one another.

“Barbara could tell us exactly what was going on when a bat would deliver a particular song,” Pollak said. “The more we studied these songs and this social interaction, the clearer it became that the songs were all different, there were rules to them and these animals were conveying very specific messages to one another. This was an unbelievably rich repertoire of communication, and it was stunning how effectively the bats were using vocalizations for something other than echolocation.”

A team of German scientists working in Panama tested local bats by playing audio of other bats, including some familiar, local bats, strange bats from other populations, and bats from a different species entirely. The chirping of familiar bats and the sounds of other species didn’t get much of a rise out of the colony, but as soon as they started hearing from strange bats of the same species, the bats got very interested. Whenever the bats answered the calls, they made a unique noise that carried with it an identifiable acoustical signature that no other bat could reproduce. The researchers think this is the bat equivalent of saying, “Hello, it’s me.”

Whether bats have languages depends on whether researchers can learn if they use any syntactical structure in their communication. My gut tells me that, as more research is done on animal cognition and communication, researchers will begin to find more evidence to support arguments for animal languages, as it’s generally much harder to find something if you haven’t been looking for it. If you want to judge for yourself, listen to recordings of the courtship song, a mother calling her baby, and a male defending his territory pulled from the feature story.

So we may find that bats have made a language out of their “sight.” Next post:  How certain special humans have taken the opposite approach and made “sight” out of language.



  1. Many animals do, in a sense, possess a basic form of language that they can use for communication, with everything from primates to whales to bees showing some basic ability to transmit information through sounds. But this is the first time researchers have definitively shown that bats use echolocation to speak to each other as much as they do to find their way around.

  2. Sheryl Diaz says:

    I am BATMAN… (in a whispering voice)

  3. Harold Li says:

    Bats are thought to be able to communicate with the spirits. This and the fact that bats are night creatures, is why they are used on Halloween and the fact is that some people still believe in the old stories… Ew, bats..

  4. Rose McCall says:

    Bats shitting on upside-down bats could be a form of communication!

    • Ken says:

      But what does it mean, Rose!

  5. Randy Lahey says:

    Nothing is too high frequency for the bat detector!

  6. shakabra says:

    I bet you don’t translate Bats Ken (also Batsi, Batsbi, Batsb, Batsaw, Tsova-Tush) is the language of the Bats people, a Caucasian minority group, and is part of the Nakh family of Caucasian languages. It had 2,500 to 3,000 speakers in 1975.There is only one dialect. It exists only as a spoken language, as the Bats people use Georgian as their written language. The language is not mutually intelligible with either Chechen or Ingush, the other two members of the Nakh family.

    • Ken says:

      Next Bats job comes in I know who to call.

  7. Diana Crane says:

    Kind of reminds me of the rat story I heard a while back. Apparently rats (And probably mice) also make extremely high pitched noises that increase in repetition and intensity when the researchers tickled the rats.

  8. 300ohm says:

    Echolocation is definately a rudimentary language, transmitting greetings and social information as well..

  9. bubba says:

    Bats are fine animals, and it seems we are learning more about them just as many of their populations are becoming more endangered through disease and habitat loss. Very sad.

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