Doing research on vocal learning animals, such as elephants, whales, and sea lions, is not an easy task, so zoologists began studying the Egyptian fruit bat, a species that is vocal learning and that makes babbling noises before they master communication, in the same way a human child does. This study basically put the bats in a vocal “vacuum” to show just how their communication develops.
The researchers put the five bat pups in an isolated environment where they were not able to hear any conversations from the adult bats. Once the five were weaned, they were subjected to adult bat babble by using a speaker system. A separate group of five bats were raised within a colony with adult bats present, allowing them to hear vocalizations with others from birth. The bats in the colony switched over to more grown up interactions from their babbling early in their development, where the ones that were isolated continued to babble way into their adolescence. The isolated ones were able to figure out how to make adult noises, but they could not separate the adult noises from the adolescent babble. Researchers then put both groups of bats together. When that happened, the bats that were originally isolated overtook their peers. The researchers discovered that the interaction between bats is more closely related to human language than it is the songs of birds because the fruit bats seemed to “talk” in conversations rather than singing about their condition in the way birds do.
Researchers hope that their studies on the language of the fruit bats will be able to reveal more information on how humans acquire language. In the meantime, though, the researchers are hoping to learn more about what the bats are actually conversing about, both in the wild and in the lab.