Researcher Teaches Bats To Love Heavy Metal Music For The Sake Of Science

<p> Sean Mattson/Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute</p>
<p> Sean Mattson/Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute</p>

A biologist from the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute has found a novel way of luring back a group of bats that have been released from captivity into the jungles of Panama - by playing the thrashing sounds of heavy metal music that they've learned to love.

Post-doctoral researcher Inga Geipel is on a mission to better understand how fringe-lipped bats adapt their use of echolocation in relation to their environment in the wild. But to do that, she must ensure that the animals being monitored are the same ones each time. So, using a clever training regiment on bats in captivity, Geipel was able to tap into their attraction to the sound of frogs and replace it with another sound that only they would respond to once she set them free.

"In the wild these bats find male túngara frogs by listening for the mating calls they make" says Geipel, to Smithsonian Science. "We use this natural behavior to train the bats by slowly switching the sounds they associate with food from frog calls to music."

Geipel starts by presenting the bats chirping frogs to eat atop a speaker. But as the bats swoop in to eat their prey, the speaker begins to play a song from the German heavy metal band Planks.

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"The bats are pretty well trained to associate the music with food by the end of the first night, but to make sure that it really sinks in, I give them another night of reinforcement with just the music," says Geipel.

Afterward, when the bats are returned to the wild, Geipel plays the music again - and sure enough, the winged little music-lovers come flying in for the researcher to gather data about their use of echolocation.

"It not only brings the bats close enough for the microphones to record their echolocation calls but allows me to be fairly sure that the bats that I record in the forest are the same individuals that I recorded in the flight cage. It is highly unlikely that bats other than the ones I have trained would respond to the music," says Geipel.

The researcher says she chose the heavy metal music for its sonic qualities, going from hard to soft in a way that somewhat mirrors the call of the frogs they eat. As for the bats actually enjoying the musical genre without a food reward? That's an area for future study.

"I don't know whether bats like this heavy metal music better than other types of music," Geipel admits. "That is something I would like to find out in an upcoming experiment."

But beyond being trained to be attracted to music, bats are also quite skilled at coming up with their own. Researchers in the United States found that bat, like birds, create complex ‘love songs' to win over potential mates. These little musical scores had largely been missed by scientists in the past because most of the notes they contain exceed the frequency which humans can hear.