Photo in the News: Baby Bats Babble Like Human Infants

Baby sac-winged bats found to babble (photo)
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August 14, 2006—Just like human children, bat pups may amuse themselves by saying the equivalent of "goo goo ga ga."

Young greater sac-winged bats, like the one pictured here, make long strings of adultlike noises, according to research by Mirjam Knörnschild and her colleagues at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

The screeches, barks, and hisses have no social context, meaning the sounds are most likely babbling and not a form of communication, the scientists report in an upcoming issue of the journal Naturwissenschaften (listen to a babbling baby bat).

In humans, babbling is thought to help infants train the muscles of their vocal tract for adult speech and to help them practice combining syllables into specific sounds. Babbling could serve a similar purpose in bat pups, Knörnschild wrote in an email.

The behavior is a rare finding in animals. Until now, babbling had been observed only in humans and a few primates, such as pygmy marmosets. Some songbirds also go through speech phases that resemble babbling.

But the bat research may mean that there are many more examples to discover.

"In general, I believe that babbling could be essential to acquire complex vocal repertoires," Knörnschild said. Whales, dolphins, parrots, and most primates fit into this category.

"Further research about infant vocalizations could reveal that babbling is a much more widespread phenomenon in mammals than was previously thought."

—Aalok Mehta

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