July 10, 2013 Florida International University (FIU) biologist Kirsten M. Bohn in collaboration with researchers from Texas A&M, recently published a study that shows Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) vary the way elements are combined in their songs (i.e. syntax) in response to different social contexts, which is exceedingly rare among non-human mammals.
The free-tailed bat is a mammal that sings like a bird, producing complex songs following specific organizational rules. Unlike most mammalian vocalizations, free-tailed bat songs are hierarchically structured where syllables are combined to form phrases and phrases are combined to form songs analogous to human speech. Previous research by Bohn and colleagues showed that song syntax varied greatly from one rendition to the next, however the function of syntactical variation remained unknown.
In this study Bohn found that song syntax is directly correlated with social context. Free-tailed bats roost in the millions and have highly variable social environments. Thus, song flexibility may have evolved to meet the demands of a complex and dynamic social environment. Actively modifying vocal syntax in response to social cues is common in songbirds and the basis for songbirds being used as our main model of human speech. As mammals, bats may greatly add to our understanding of the neurobiology of speech production.
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The above story is based on materials provided by Florida International University.
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- Kirsten M. Bohn, Grace C. Smarsh, Michael Smotherman. Social context evokes rapid changes in bat song syntax. Animal Behaviour, 2013; 85 (6): 1485 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.04.002
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