MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Spend any time around a baby and you're likely to hear some babbling. Now new research shows baby bats can babble, too. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In Central and South America lives of species of bat known as the greater sac-winged bat.
AHANA FERNANDEZ: They're really cute. I really like to look at them. They have friendly faces (laughter).
BRUMFIEL: Ahana Fernandez is a postdoc at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, Germany. And it's a good thing she likes looking at these bats because she gets a lot of face time. Every morning, she's out in the field. She gets up before dawn.
FERNANDEZ: I pack all my equipment, and I walk into the dark forest.
BRUMFIEL: She plops herself down under a tree or near an abandoned house where the bats like to hang out and waits for the sun to rise.
FERNANDEZ: All the bats fly in from foraging, and then I'm sitting in front of the tree or the house until the sun sets again.
BRUMFIEL: Recording the sounds of baby bats babbling.
(SOUNDBITE OF BATS BABBLING)
FERNANDEZ: And they babble for - sometimes for 40 minutes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BATS BABBLING)
BRUMFIEL: This babbling is unique. Other bat species don't do it. Fernandez's boss, named Mirjam Knornschild, first noticed it years ago. She thought it sounded like human babies. And when Fernandez started working with the bats, she heard it, too.
FERNANDEZ: This is crazy. This is amazing. It's so conspicuous. It's so loud. It's so long. And yes, I was also thinking about infants, human infants that babble.
BRUMFIEL: Fernandez and the team set out to systematically study the babbling. The results, published today in the journal Science, find eight similarities between bats and us people. For example, human babies don't just make random noises.
FERNANDEZ: In human infant babbling, they produce a syllable-type baa-baa-baa-baa (ph) in a rhythmic way and then switch to a next one, daa-daa-daa (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF INFANT BABBLING)
BRUMFIEL: That's my daughter from a few years back. And here's a baby bat.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAT BABBLING)
BRUMFIEL: It's slowed down a little to hear it better. The grown-up bats eventually stitch those individual sounds into songs. D. Kimbrough Oller is a researcher at the University of Memphis who was not directly involved with the study.
D KIMBROUGH OLLER: I think that one of the remarkable things here is just that the sac-winged bat and the human infant both babble sort of constantly.
BRUMFIEL: And there may be an evolutionary reason for that. Both bats and babies need their parents. And crying, well, parents know that gets old, right? Babbling is another way to say, I'm here. I'm healthy. Don't forget about me.
KIMBROUGH OLLER: And once babbling is off the ground, it can supply a foundation for the adult of vocal capabilities that can be used for something else.
BRUMFIEL: In the case of these bats, babbling leads to singing, an important part of their courtship rituals. And in the case of humans, babbling eventually leads to public radio.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAFT PUNK'S "CONTACT")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.