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Frog-eating bats can form long-term memories, study using phone ringtones discovers © Getty Images
© Getty Images

Frog-eating bats can form long-term memories, study using phone ringtones discovers

Published: 21st June, 2022 at 15:39
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Some of the bats tested were able to remember a learned association between specific ringtones and food for up to four years.

This isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the term ‘bat phone’: researchers at Ohio State University have shown that frog-eating bats can form long-term memories by training them to associate food rewards with phone ringtones.


The team initially exposed 49 lab-based frog-eating bats to a recording of the mating call of the male túngara frog, one of their favourite snacks, and rewarded them with a tasty piece of fish when they flew to it.

Over time, the researchers merged a ringtone into the call until it was completely replaced, but kept the fish reward the same. They then exposed the bats to three other ringtones that were not connected to food rewards to test their behaviour.

Each bat eventually learned which ringtone signalled the food reward and stopped flying towards the unrewarded sounds. After periods varying from 11 to 27 days, the researchers microchipped the bats and released them into the wild.

Then, over the following four years, the team recaptured eight of the trained bats and tested their responses to the reward ringtone. All eight quickly flew to the sound expecting a reward.

A frog-eating bat swoops down to the sound of the ringtone to collect its reward © Andrew Quitmeyer
A frog-eating bat swoops down to the sound of the ringtone to collect its reward © Andrew Quitmeyer

“I was surprised – 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 lead researcher May Dixon, a postdoctoral scholar in evolution, ecology and organismal biology 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 study taught us a lot because there are relatively few studies of long-term memory in wild animals and we don’t have systematic understanding of long-term memories in nature yet.

“If we can collect additional data on different species of bats, we could pick this apart and see what life histories select for long memories.”

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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