Vocal learning by greater spear–nosed bats

Janette Wenrick Boughman


Vocal learning is well known among passerine and psittacine birds, but most data on mammals are equivocal. Specific benefits of vocal learning are poorly understood for most species. One case where vocal learning should be favoured by selection is where calls indicate group membership and group mates are unrelated. Female greater spear–nosed bats, Phyllostomus hastatus, live in stable groups of unrelated bats and use loud, broadband calls to coordinate foraging movements of social group mates. Bats benefit from group foraging. Calls differ between female social groups and cave colonies, and playback experiments demonstrate that bats perceive these acoustic differences. Here I show that the group distinctive structure of calls arises through vocal learning. Females change call structure when group composition changes, resulting in increased similarity among new social group mates. Comparisons of transfers with age–matched half–sibs indicate that call changes are not simply due to maturation, the physical environment or heredity. These results suggest that studies testing vocal learning in mammals could profit by focusing on vocalizations that signify group membership.

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