“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.

Planet of the Apes: Monkeys Using Stone Tools Since 1300s


Oxford University researchers have uncovered an archeological trove of stone tools used by capuchin monkeys in Brazil in the 14th century to open cashew nuts. These simians still use the tool. It can be found by cashew trees in the Serra da Capivara National Park, in the state of Piaui. The apes use a large stone as an anvil, upon which they place the cashew nuts. They then crack it open with a smaller stone. The capuchin monkeys have become so skilled at the task that they do not injure themselves, unlike chimpanzees using similar tools. Researchers wonder if humans learned of the fruit thanks to the monkeys. The shell, covered in toxic resin that can cause sickness, disguises well its content. From the outside, it does not seem to contain an edible fruit. More importantly, this finding adds yet another question mark to our classical notions of intelligence. The tweak now is that it may recast also another discipline: History. This evidence points to the onset of a Stone Age for the Brazilian capuchin monkeys. A question arises: How fast is evolution proceeding?