Bat echolocation is primarily used for orientation and foraging but also holds great potential for social communication. The communicative function of echolocation calls is still largely unstudied, especially in the wild. Eavesdropping on vocal signatures encoding social information in echolocation calls has not, to our knowledge, been studied in free-living bats so far. We analysed echolocation calls of the polygynous bat Saccopteryx bilineata and found pronounced vocal signatures encoding sex and individual identity. We showed experimentally that free-living males discriminate approaching male and female conspecifics solely based on their echolocation calls. Males always produced aggressive vocalizations when hearing male echolocation calls and courtship vocalizations when hearing female echolocation calls; hence, they responded with complex social vocalizations in the appropriate social context. Our study demonstrates that social information encoded in bat echolocation calls plays a crucial and hitherto underestimated role for eavesdropping conspecifics and thus facilitates social communication in a highly mobile nocturnal mammal.
Bat echolocation calls facilitate social communication
Mirjam Knörnschild, Kirsten Jung, Martina Nagy, Markus Metz and Elisabeth Kalko
Proc. R. Soc. B