bats bats Baby bats are listening very closely. (Photo: KOO/Shutterstock)

New discovery: Baby bats can learn foreign languages

Vocal learning has rarely been proven to exist in animals outside of humans and birds. Until now.

They say that learning a new language can be difficult and it's best to get started early in life when our brains our more malleable. Well, not to make you feel rushed, but baby bats are one step ahead of you.

According to a new study, these little bats can learn foreign languages – or at least different dialects. A team of researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel raised more than a dozen baby bats in different colonies. During that time, the scientists piped in different subsets of bat voices through a set of speakers. Although the young bats were exposed to their mothers' "normal" dialect and could communicate just fine with her, each group developed a dialect resembling the one they were exposed to through the recordings.

Apparently, it turns out, baby bats are the Rosetta Stone of animals.

bats hanging from a cave Scientists recently studied whether bats learn to 'speak' from their moms or from their colonies.. (Photo: Ethan Daniels / Shutterstock)

"The difference between the vocalizations of the mother bat and those of the colony are akin to a London accent and, say, a Scottish accent," explained Dr. Yossi Yovel, a neuroecologist who led the research. "The pups heard their mothers' 'London' dialect, but also heard the 'Scottish' dialect mimicked by many dozens of 'Scottish' bats. The pups eventually adopted a dialect that was more similar to the local 'Scottish' dialect than to the 'London' accent of their mothers."

It's a big deal because vocal learning has rarely been proven to exist in animals other than humans or songbirds. Moreover, bats are closely related to us in that they are also mammals. So studying their skills could have implications for humans as well.

"The ability to learn vocalizations from others is extremely important for speech acquisition in humans, but it's believed to be rare among animals," Dr. Yovel added. "Researchers have believed that this is what makes human language unique."

This week's announcement is just the latest in a string of discoveries taking place at Yovel's "Bat Lab" on the seaside campus of Tel Aviv University. Since opening his laboratory, he discovered that while bats work in teams, they also argue a lot. They also can't help but fly into windows. Down the street from Yovel's lab, a woman has turned her home into a bat rescue center where she is currently rehabilitating around 70 injured bats.

Up next for the Israeli researchers is to determine how learning these new dialects influences the ability of bats to integrate into foreign colonies. "Will they adopt the local dialect or will they be rejected by the group? Or maybe the local colony will change its dialect to adopt that of our bats," Yovel said. "There are many interesting avenues yet to explore."

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