Bats can remember sounds years after learning them - study

Bats were found to possess impressive long-term memories in a study conducted by Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution researchers.

Egyptian fruit bats were the subject of a study by Tel Aviv University researchers. (photo credit: YUVAL BARKAI/TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
Egyptian fruit bats were the subject of a study by Tel Aviv University researchers.
(photo credit: YUVAL BARKAI/TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

Bats have an ability to learn and retain information that is crucial to their way of life, Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution (STRI) researchers discovered in a new report.

The study, published in the Current Biology scientific journal this month, sought to test whether frog-eating bats can remember a sound, years after they were taught it.

The research team, led by biologist May Dixon, trained 49 wild bats to respond to soundbites played through speakers, which had rewards placed on top of them to incentivize the bats to continue responding to the ringtones.

The STRI team found that the bats learned quite quickly to fly to the speaker when they hear the ringtones, while not responding when other sounds, which did not reward them with snacks.

Eight of the trained bats, who were microchipped and released back to the wild, were recaptured between one to four years later with the aim of testing whether they can recollect the association they have made between the ringtone and food.

 Fringe-lipped bat (Trachops cirrhosus). Photo taken in La Selva, Costa Ric (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Fringe-lipped bat (Trachops cirrhosus). Photo taken in La Selva, Costa Ric (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

More results

The experiment was successful, as the bats recognized two of the sounds they were trained to respond to, the ping of an incoming SMS and the beep of a car being unlocked.

17 untrained bats, who were also included in the experiment, seemed interested in the sound but did not fly toward it, the study found.

According to STRI, The frog-eating bats’ newfound long-term memory helps them to hunt by learning and remembering which frog calls indicate that a frog is good to eat, poisonous, or too big to carry.

"It’s possible that they remember the extinguished sound, but enough time had gone by that they thought to check it out once more," said PhD student and study co-author Patricia Jones.

"Or it’s possible that they couldn’t remember the exact difference between the ringtones, and that extinguished sound was close enough to the rewarded one that they decided to check that out too," Jones explained. "Sort of like a generalization of memory."