Does this ring a bell? Wild bats can remember sounds for years: Frog-eating bats could recognize ringtones indicating a food reward up to four years later

There are certain skills that once we acquire them, we rarely have to relearn them, like riding a bike or looking both ways before crossing a street. Most studies on learning and long-term memory in the wild focus on a handful of animal species. Now, in a publication in Current Biology, researchers working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) share the first report of long-term memory in frog-eating bats (Trachops cirrhosus).

“Frog-eating bats are an excellent emerging model organism for studying cognitive and sensory ecology,” explains biologist M. May Dixon, lead author of the paper, who just finished her doctoral degree at the University of Texas at Austin, “learning plays a big part in their lives.”

The bats’ ability to learn and retain information means that when they are hunting frogs, their main prey, they don’t have to continuously relearn which frog calls indicate that a frog is good to eat, poisonous, or too big to carry.

Dixon and colleagues trained 49 wild bats to respond to cellphone ringtones played through speakers. Bats responding to two of the tones found a bait fish reward on the speaker every time, but when they responded to three other tones, they were never rewarded. They quickly learned to fly to the speaker when ringtones indicated a snack, and not to respond to the other tones. The bats were then microchipped and released back into Panama’s Soberania National Park.

Researchers recaptured eight trained bats between one to four years later, and when they played the experimental sounds again, the bats recognized and responded to the two rewarded ringtones even four years later. For comparison, the experiment included 17 untrained frog-eating bats that usually twitched their ears attentively but did not fly to the sounds.

When Dixon was working as a STRI intern with PhD student and co-author Patricia Jones to find out if the bats could learn which novel tones meant a reward by watching the responses of other bats, she realized that she could also find out if the bats could remember the tones.

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