A dual function of echolocation: bats use echolocation calls to identify familiar and unfamiliar individuals

Authors: Silke L. Voigt-Heucke, Michael Taborsky, Dina K.N. Dechmann

Bats use echolocation for orientation during foraging and navigation. However, it has been suggested that echolocation calls may also have a communicative function, for instance between roost members. In principle, this seems possible because echolocation calls are species specific and known to differ between the sexes, and between colonies and individuals for some species. We performed playback experiments with lesser bulldog bats, Noctilio albiventris, to which we presented calls of familiar/unfamiliar conspecifics, cohabitant/noncohabitant heterospecifics and ultrasonic white noise as a control. Bats reacted with a complex repertoire of social behaviours and the intensity of their response differed significantly between stimulus categories. Stronger reactions were shown towards echolocation calls of unfamiliar conspecifics than towards heterospecifics and white noise. To our knowledge, this is the first time that bats have been found to react to echolocation calls with a suite of social behaviours. Our results also provide the first experimental evidence for acoustical differentiation by bats between familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics, and of heterospecifics. Analysis of echolocation calls confirmed significant individual differences between echolocation calls. In addition, we found a nonsignificant trend towards group signatures in echolocation calls of N. albiventris. We suggest that echolocation calls used during orientation may also communicate species identity, group affiliation and individual identity. Our study highlights the communicative potential of sonar signals that have previously been categorized as cues in animal social systems.

Link to "Animal Behaviour" website >>>