Bats are gregarious, highly vocal animals that possess a broad repertoire of social vocalisations. For in-depth studies of their vocal behaviours, including vocal flexibility and vocal learning, it is necessary to gather repeatable evidence from controlled laboratory experiments on isolated individuals. However, such studies are rare for one simple reason: eliciting social calls in isolation and under operant control is challenging and has rarely been achieved. To overcome this limitation, we designed an automated setup that allows conditioning of social vocalisations in a new context, and tracks spectro-temporal changes in the recorded calls over time. Using this setup, we were able to reliably evoke social calls from temporarily isolated lesser spear-nosed bats (Phyllostomus discolor). When we adjusted the call criteria that could result in food reward, bats responded by adjusting temporal and spectral call parameters. This was achieved without the help of an auditory template or social context to direct the bats. Our results demonstrate vocal flexibility and vocal usage learning in bats. Our setup provides a new paradigm that allows the controlled study of the production and learning of social vocalisations in isolated bats, overcoming limitations that have, until now, prevented in-depth studies of these behaviours.
Ella Z. Lattenkamp, Sonja C. Vernes, and Lutz Wiegrebe