The Bat in Us

Only a handful of species address each other individually. For instance, there’s some evidence that bottlenose dolphins use learned vocal behavior to call each other by name. They become acquainted with signature whistle sounds from birth and associate these sounds with identity. Linking particular sounds to identity is an ability inherent to human language. Of greater interest, a recent study of Egyptian fruit bats tells us more about ourselves than the bats we examine.

Tel Aviv University researchers discovered that 60% of bat calls can be broken down into four clear categories, and they’re all tied to angry, aggressive behavior. One call indicates that bats are arguing about food. Given that “vocal communication increases when vision is limited,” these roosting clusters of bats learn in the dark to direct their hostilities toward specific offenders, making the interactions nuanced and personal. In human terms, this equals a hostile work environment, among other things.

Another bat call indicates anger over living space. Two bats perching in close proximity often leads to a verbal argument that results in one bat moving away or both bats remaining uncomfortably together. Humans, too, strive for more personal space in the form of bigger homes and yards. Of course, the implication of segregation also applies here, as well as the “there goes the neighborhood” mentality.

A third bat call has to do with mating aggression. Specifically, females often protest against males’ mating attempts. When this happens, the males either become more aggressive or just give up and move away. There even seems to be a nuanced gender communication distinction between how females and males speak to each other. There’s no need to expand much on how this, too, reflects the human condition.

Finally, bats verbally assault each other over their position in the sleeping cluster. How telling. I don’t think enough humans realize how important their sleep is to mental and physical health, especially given the accelerating pace of modern culture. In this particular instance, the bats have it right. Given the repeated indignities suffered in the conscious realm, the least one deserves is a good night’s sleep. You can’t blame the bats for wanting that.