“The World is Upside Down”: What Bats Talk About

 

Ignorant as men notoriously are, it is only now that we are realizing that animals have complex communication systems. Yossi Yovel, a neuroecologist at Tel Aviv University, recently led a study that deciphered the banter and squeals of Egyptian fruit bats.

More importantly, his research, published in Scientific Reports shows the fruit bat is one of only a few animals known to direct its calls at specific individuals in a colony. Moreover, the calls of many social animals may be more detailed than was previously thought.

“To find out what bats are talking about, Yovel and his colleagues monitored 22 captive Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) around the clock for 75 days,” says an article in Nature magazine. Then they matched a voice-recognition program that analyzed 15,000 vocalizations to different social interactions captured by video, including fights between two bats over food.

Researchers thus decoded the language. More than sixty percent of the bats’ cries falls into four categories: “squabbling over food, jostling over position in their sleeping cluster, protesting over mating attempts and arguing when perched in close proximity to each other.”

As we see, they aren’t too different from humans. If you have any doubt, just go over your recent experience at the holiday dinner and the aftermath.

Human uniqueness among other animals probably stems from his complex speech and his capacity for abstract thought. It was the ability to gather around a higher, abstract idea, that enabled him to prevail over other species, including kin like the Neanderthal.

At the same time, as only now we are emerging from the dark in regards to animal communication, it is safe to assume that our grasp on the life of other creatures that share the planet with us is weak at best. For such a long time, we have assumed the noises they make were mere sounds of fear or alarm. This only speaks to our ignorance. Recent research suggests that evolution not only has not stopped, but that proceeds much faster than we thought. The last word has not been said yet. Even when it comes to bat speech.

Why are humpback whales protecting animals from killer orcas?

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman witnessed how a humpback whale went to great lengths to save a seal from orcas that were circling in on it for the attack. The humpback fought off the orcas, had the seal climb on top of its upturned belly and then placed it back on the safety of an ice floe in Antarctica. Ever since, Pitman has conducted research on the apparently altruistic behavior of humpback whales. Of the 115 documented interactions between humpback and orcas between 1951 and 2012, 89 percent were interventions by the former to save prey from the latter. One hypothesis, not too convincing, explains this behavior as an attempt by humpbacks to generally deter hunting by orcas. This would not be entirely selfless. Orcas attack humpbacks’ calves, so in fighting the predators off, they are ensuring safer seas for their offspring. The alternative explanation would call for deeper research and reexamining our zoological notions. Is it possible that the whales are displaying behavior observed on land mammals, such as dogs, apes, and—oh heresy—humans? Namely, they are purely doing the good deed, or acting out of revenge against a rival family from the same species. If so, it would add to the evidence that animals’ feelings and behavior are far more complex than tight evolutionary notions have made us believe. These concepts, perhaps, have stretched for far too long from Darwin to our days.

Inky the Octopus and Chacha the Chimpanzee’s Quest for Freedom

 

An octopus named Inky broke out of his tank at the National Aquarium of New Zealand, in a brazen escape that has earned the admiration of his former masters. Rob Yarrell, national manager of the aquarium in Napier, said: “Octopuses are famous escape artists.” While investigators are still unsure how he slid out of his glass prison, Yarrell conjectured that Inky, “such a curious boy” would merely “want to know what’s happening on the outside” as that was “just his personality.” At about the same time, on another island to New Zealand’s northeast, a chimpanzee sought to break free, too. His dramatic dash for freedom was captured by cameras, in scenes reminiscent of a classic movie, as poignantly reminding us of the yearning for freedom of every living creature, entitled to it as much as anyone. Yet for all his anger and desperation, Chacha the chimpanzee could not make it farther than electricity pole in the Japanese city of Sendai, where he was returned to the zoo after his capture in a world that a very long time ago has turned alien for him. While it is true that in the last few years zoos have turned more “humane,” an oxymoron we hope our readers will forgive us for, we can only hope that conservation efforts may still one day restore freedom, and our undisturbed place, to all of us who share the world.