Confused Bats or Fluid Behavior?

I have to say that it warms the cockles of my heart (I do not apologize for that) to see the plasticity of animal behavior displayed and presented beyond the books. Dr. Rachel Page was the source of this; an expert in bat behavioral patterns with an interest in their predatory behavior.

Trachops cirrhosus - Photo by Carrie Webber

She presented some of her more interesting findings produced during her time in the Smithsonian. While I had some general awareness of bats physiology (invaluable reliance on ears and echo-location for navigation), Dr. Page provided facets of these creatures that I had absolutely no prior knowledge. They include:

  • Bats (at least the species’ she works with) use their ears to scrutinize the mating calls of the cane toad (a poisonous creature) and a local frog specimen (Túngara)  that is their preferred food source. While  bats will ignore the sounds of the cane toad, they instinctively seek the source of frog croaking.
  • Through unique experiments, Dr Page and her team presented Túngara croaking to the bats that gradually transformed into cane toad sounds. With a little positive reinforcement, the bats in one night were conditioned to fly towards cane toad sounds and not the frog.
  • When the question of the source of learning for this behavior arose, the scientists determined that social behavior and (not solitary) was the key. When a conditioned bat was placed in a trial with a novice, the novice observed their “research colleague” several times before acquiring the behavior. Dr Page did note however that observant behavior only occurs when the bat cannot rely on its own cues.
  • Easily the most interesting: while this conditioned behavior was primary temporary, follow-up observations on several of the bats revealed that they still responded to cane toad sound; despite not being used in an experimental apparatus for several months.

Trachops cirrhosus - photo by Alexander T. Baugh

Coming from a psychology background, I appreciated seeing classical and operant conditioned techniques remaining relevant in modern animal behavior studies when it seems that biology primarily dominates the field. This easily one of my top 3 favorite presentations since  residing at STRI.



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