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PLoS Comput Biol. 2009 Jun;5(6):e1000400. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000400. Epub 2009 Jun 5.

The voice of bats: how greater mouse-eared bats recognize individuals based on their echolocation calls.

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Animal Physiology, Institute for Neurobiology, University of Tuebingen, Tuebingen, Germany.


Echolocating bats use the echoes from their echolocation calls to perceive their surroundings. The ability to use these continuously emitted calls, whose main function is not communication, for recognition of individual conspecifics might facilitate many of the social behaviours observed in bats. Several studies of individual-specific information in echolocation calls found some evidence for its existence but did not quantify or explain it. We used a direct paradigm to show that greater mouse-eared bats (Myotis myotis) can easily discriminate between individuals based on their echolocation calls and that they can generalize their knowledge to discriminate new individuals that they were not trained to recognize. We conclude that, despite their high variability, broadband bat-echolocation calls contain individual-specific information that is sufficient for recognition. An analysis of the call spectra showed that formant-related features are suitable cues for individual recognition. As a model for the bat's decision strategy, we trained nonlinear statistical classifiers to reproduce the behaviour of the bats, namely to repeat correct and incorrect decisions of the bats. The comparison of the bats with the model strongly implies that the bats are using a prototype classification approach: they learn the average call characteristics of individuals and use them as a reference for classification.

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