If you had the ears of a bat, what would you hear if you walked into a crowded bat cave? Music, it turns out, but not your basic string ensemble.
The noise would be louder than a rock concert, and it would be "so loud it would blow your ears out," according to a bat lover at Texas A&M University who has been studying the creatures for 13 years.
And what would the music be all about? Love, or at least procreation, said Kirsten Bohn, lead author of a study in the current issue of PloS One.
Bohn and several other researchers at three institutions, including the University of Texas, are turning up astounding facts about the only mammal on the planet that is capable of flying.
Some glide, actually, but they don't fly. And it just may be that this much-maligned animal that rids the world of billions of insects every night may play a key role in the years ahead in the fight against diseases that afflict millions of people.
That's because the lowly bat is more like us than we had imagined, and in some areas it may be more suitable for research than the furry friend of humankind, the rat.
The latest discovery to come from Bohn and her colleagues is that male bats sing complex, sophisticated love songs to the females in their neighborhood in hopes of winning their affection, and simultaneously warning other males to back off.
We've always known that birds can sing, and even dolphins and whales use sounds to communicate with others in their group, but now it appears that bats may be the only mammals -- except humans -- that communicate through multi-syllable, tightly structured, patterns of phrases.
That's surprising, because if you've ever heard a bat sing, it doesn't sound like much. But that's because humans can only hear a tiny part of the bat's song, most of which reaches frequencies far above human hearing.
Bohn began studying bats while working on her doctorate at the University of Maryland, where she discovered that bats are highly social and very cooperative, at least with their own kind. That set her on her current course, studying social and vocal evolution. She linked up with another researcher, Barbara French, known among her friends as the "bat whisperer."
French had noticed that bats start making "buzzing sounds" at about the same time every year, and she joined the research team of neurobiologist George Pollock at the University of Texas. Bohn also joined the Texas team, and for three years the researchers recorded the sounds of bats. There are about a million bats near the Austin campus, and to the researchers it seemed like the bats were, well, singing.
Fortuitously, another researcher, biologist Mike Smotherman at Texas A&M, had also discovered that bats in his neighborhood were singing. Bohn joined forces with Smotherman, and all the researchers began pooling their data. Not only did the evidence show the bats were indeed singing complex songs, they were singing the same song.
"We were stunned to find almost identical songs in College Station and in Austin," although the two campuses are about 200 miles apart, Bohn said in a telephone interview.
That raised an interesting question. Does music just come naturally to bats, or do they learn it from some other bat? No one knows for sure yet, but that will be a major focus of Bohn's future research.