Comprising around one-fifth of all mammals on the planet and found on every continent apart from Antarctica, it’s no surprise bats have featured so heavily in popular culture for hundreds of years.
Scientists believe that bats are intelligent and highly adaptable creatures that have tools such as echolocation at their disposal, they have complicated social structures and are complex communicators.
Many Mesoamerican cultures, Native American groups, and central European people have regarded bats as symbolizing danger, with beliefs centered on the underworld, evil spirits, and Count Dracula. In other contexts they are viewed more positively – many Chinese people consider them to be lovely creatures and the tales of Batman portray the crime-fighting heroics of the chiropteran caped crusader.
However, whether you think of them as good, bad, or ugly there’s another, a perhaps more important, question that comes to mind – are bats smart?
Now to answer this question, we first need to define what we mean by smart. What exactly is intelligence?
There are numerous definitions, but for our purposes we will focus on the ability to apply learning, solve problems, and collaborate.
Now, you may well have heard about the relatively high intelligence of rodents – rats in particular. This is true, but we want to be absolutely clear: despite the common misperception, bats are not rodents!
Yes, despite the passing resemblance of some of them to a rat with wings, bats are not rodents, they are members of the order Chiroptera. Bats are the only mammals with the ability for true flight and with wings that move in and out as well as up and down, they are more agile in the air than any species of bird.
Echolocation and calculation
A noted ability of many – although not all – types of bat, is echolocation. You can think of this sense as being akin to sonar used by submarines…except the bats got there several thousands of years before us! In this incredible process, they scan their environment to build up a type of map of their surroundings, including the location of trees, other obstacles and prey.
The calls microbats emit range in frequency from around 14,000 to over 100,000 Hz, which is well beyond the 20,000 Hz at the top end of humans’ range of hearing. Depending on the task they’re performing, the bats vary the frequency of calls. They avoid deafening themselves either by contracting their ear muscles or emitting shrieks at a higher frequency than even their broad range.
Without even thinking about it, bats are able to calculate distance by measuring how long it takes their calls to bounce back to them. All the more astonishing is the fact they are capable of doing this when they are in flight.
On top of that, they use frequency changes created by the Doppler Effect (that weird change in the sound you hear when a vehicle with a siren speeds past you) to identify not only types of prey but also their speed and direction of movement.
Now, we don’t know about you, but to us, all of that calculating and adjusting whilst flying at speed is pretty smart!
Don’t take that tone with me!
Okay, let’s take a look at another use of those bat squeaks and squeals. Plenty of creatures communicate with each other by making noise, but it is usually used only to convey the most basic of messages. It turns out that some bats not only do so in this basic and general sense, but in very specific and context-dependent ways.
Egyptian fruit bats communicate about a range of problems including protests about
Not only that, but careful examination of the bats’ calls revealed that they alter the pitch of their calls according to who they are addressing, much like a human altering their tone of voice depending on which person they are speaking to. This remarkable differentiation is witnessed in only a very small number of species, such as dolphins, people and some other primates.
So, that’s our second example of bats’ smartness.
Community and cooperation
We’ve learned how bats use squeals and calls to manage the stresses and strains of living in close proximity. Now we’re going to take a closer look at the way in which they organize their social lives.
It is acknowledged by the scientific community that well-developed social and cognitive skills are necessary for large-sized communities to successfully function. For a long time bats were not studied in as great a depth as other animals, but in recent years they have been examined more closely.
These observations have revealed absolutely fascinating details about life in their colonies. It has been discovered that bats foster prolonged relationships with particular individuals, groups, and networks in much the same way as people living in large towns and cities meet friends, work colleagues, and those who share their interests!
Evolutionary biologists studied two colonies with a combined population of 60 individuals, monitoring where they situated themselves within the colony. One colony was formed of 20 bats, the other of twice as many. The two colonies did not mix with each other and interestingly, the larger colony split into two subgroups of 20 individuals each. The similarity in size of all three groupings suggests that may be the optimum number for a harmonious community.
A further finding was that within each of those groupings were even smaller and more closely-aligned friendship groups formed of related females (always a grandmother, mother and daughter) along with unrelated invitees.
What you may find surprising is these friendship groups did not depend on the bats spending all their time together. The botanists noted that even though the bats would often spend a great deal of time apart when engaged in daily activities, they always returned to roost with another.
The societies appeared to be somewhat matriarchal; it is grandmothers who play a leading role in forming and maintaining not only the small friendship groups but also the larger subgroups and colonies. It may be this is due to their age – the grandmothers can be as old as 20 years of age, which is certainly enough time to develop a healthy dose of wisdom in the world of bats.
The better the bats knew each other, the more they greeted by rubbing noses. The combination of familiarity and intimacy makes it easy to compare such behavior with that of people kissing or hugging each other when they meet up.
These behaviors reveal our third example of bat smartness: that they develop mutually beneficial relationships that are indicative of social intelligence.
So, in answer to the question ‘Are bats smart?’, we think that whilst they may not help you with your homework, they have a lot more going on between their ears than might first appear to be the case!