Jun 22, 2022 - News

Why some bats can remember ringtones

A frog-eating bat.

Frog-eating bat (Trachops cirrhosus). Photo courtesy Marcos Guerra via UT

Bats trained by University of Texas researchers to associate a common phone sound with a tasty treat were able to remember what they learned as much as four years later, per a new study published in Current Biology.

  • The sound they used is one that a lot of phones emit when a text comes through.

Why it matters: The research shows that bats have an impressive cognitive toolbox — and how critical memory is for survival.

How they did it: Working in Panama, the researchers trained 49 frog-eating bats to associate snatching a baitfish snack with a phone notification sound.

Flashforward: Between one and four years later, eight of those bats were recaptured and exposed again to the food-related phone sound. All of them flew toward the sound, and six flew all the way to the speaker and grabbed the food reward, meaning they expected to find food, per the researchers.

  • Control bats without previous training on the sounds were unmoved by the exposure to the unfamiliar tones.

What they're saying: "I went into this thinking that at least a year would be a reasonable time for them to remember, given all the other things they need to know and given that long-term memory does have real costs," said May Dixon, who conducted the research as a UT graduate student and is now a postdoctoral scholar at The Ohio State University. "Four years strikes me as a long time to hold on to a sound that you might never hear again."

The bottom line: Food matters when you're an animal in the wild.


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