As part of my post-doctoral work, I was fortunate enough to spend my winters at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Gamboa, Panama. There, I collaborated with Dr. Rachel Page to investigate social learning in several gleaning bat species. Essentially we were interested in figuring out who can learn to find new kinds of food from each other. This tells us how well individuals can respond to changes in their environment. It can also help us understand why similar species have very different diets. To do this, we trained bats to fetch.
The first step is to train a bat to fly to a speaker to get a food reward using a playback of a sound they are familiar with, like the song of male katydids. These bats are expert katydid hunters, which they do by listening for the songs the males use to attract females. (I’ve also become a bit of an expert myself as I have to catch them to keep my bats fat and happy!) We then train one bat to go to a speaker playing a completely novel sound that we’ve made up. This bat then becomes a demonstrator (some call them “teachers” but I prefer not to use this term as it implies that the bat is helping the other bat on purpose, which may not be the case) for naïve bats who have never been exposed to this sound before. We then watch to see how quickly our naïve bats can learn to go to the speaker just by observing the demonstrator.
The RESULTS are in! You can read all about this work in our paper in Science Advances PDF