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Males bats' mating songs could be valuable for research - The Eagle: News

Males bats' mating songs could be valuable for research

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Posted: Saturday, August 29, 2009 12:00 am

By VIMAL PATEL

vimal.patel@theeagle.com

Shy men, find comfort: The bat world also has alpha males.

New research by Texas A&M and University of Texas at Austin researchers shows that male bats create songs to attract females and warn other males to stay away.

"There's probably something in the signal that says I'm a badass male, and I'm a hot male," said Kirsten Bohn, a Texas A&M lecturer and lead researcher on the National Institutes of Health-funded project.

"The songs are extremely structured. That's why they're so interesting. I'm trying to find out if they use different songs when addressing males and females."

The researchers spent three years studying recordings of Mexican free-tailed bats in Austin and College Station to understand their meanings. As many as a quarter-million bats are believed to live in and around Kyle Field.

The findings were published this week in an online journal of the Library of Public Science.

Male bats use distinguishable syllables -- or individual sounds -- to create three kinds of phrases: chirps, buzzes and trills. They then structure the phrases in different patterns to create songs.

There are certain rules bats generally follow. About 98 percent of songs begin with a chirp, and about 80 percent that have a buzz in them end with a buzz. The most popular song appears to be a chirp-trill-buzz, Bohn said.

The seeds of the findings began in the early 1990s, when Amanda Lollar, founder of Mineral Wells-based Bat World Sanctuary, and Barbara French, then with Bat Conservation International, began noticing that the bats they were caring for were making what sounded like structured songs.

The pair had their own colonies of about 50 to 75 bats they were rehabilitating. They had intimate knowledge of each of the creatures; French still remembers her bats' names: Iris had a missing eye, Chip was missing a chunk out of its ear and Fuzz Bucket was exceptionally fuzzy. That familiarity allowed them to monitor the bats in a way researchers couldn't.

But they didn't have the sophisticated recording equipment to monitor colonies of tens and hundreds of thousands that the A&M and UT researchers did.

"It's exciting for us to have researchers do all the sophisticated analysis," French said. "We weren't even able to hear the ultrasonic calls."

The males flap around, sing songs and generally act wild to attract females -- not too dissimilar from Mick Jagger's methods in the human world, French admits.

"The girls definitely had favored males," she said. "We found that the males that were younger weren't good at getting females. Their songs weren't impressive. They just weren't as adept as the dominant males at getting females."

Neurobiologists will be able to use the research in an effort to better understand language processing and speech disorders such as stuttering and Parkinson's disease, because the bats provide a previously undiscovered model for studying the communication of other animals and humans, Bohn said.

Bohn notes that the tens of millions of bats in Central Texas provide a valuable public service by eating large numbers of insects.

The research also helps present bats, often dismissed inaccurately as flying rodents, as more sympathetic. But Bohn's opinion of the creatures couldn't fly much higher.

"They're just too cool," she said. "I don't understand how anyone could not like bats."

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