Are humans the only mammals that acquire the ability to speak during their lifetime?

A new research study sheds some light on this question by revealing that bats that are exposed to certain “conversations” learn to communicate in the dialect they learned during their infancy. Researchers at Tel Aviv University discovered that three different groups of bats “spoke” among themselves in a different way- each group in accordance with the dialect they heard during their infancy.

For the research project, which was conducted in the lab of Prof. Yossi Yovel of the Department of Zoology and led by Yosef Prat and Lindsay Azoulay, young bats were split up into three groups. Each group consisted of five young bats that were exposed to a specific dialect based on a different pitch over the course of a year. Every couple of months, the voices made by the young bats were recorded and examined.

“The ability to learn vocalizations from others is extremely important for speech acquisition in humans, but it’s believed to be rare among animals,” Yuval explained. “The most common animal models for this ‘vocal learning’ are songbirds, which learn songs from specific tutors. Bird researchers usually emphasize that a bird learns to sing from one parent, but we have shown that bats listen and learn from an entire colony of several hundred bats, not just from their parents.”

“The pups were raised with their mothers and could communicate with them,” Prat added. “But even though they were exposed to their mothers’ ‘normal’ dialect, each group instead developed a dialect resembling the one of the crowd it was exposed to through our recordings.”

The Israeli researchers plan to advance their study even further by examining how the acquisition of a new dialect impacts the bats’ ability to integrate into foreign colonies.