Ever since Thomas Nagel wrote his famous essay on what it’s like to be a bat, these flying, furry, nocturnal, shrieky mammals have taken up roost in our scientific imaginations. They’ve become a kind of poster child—or poster creature?—for the idea that our world is full of truly alien minds, inhabiting otherworldly lifeworlds. On today’s show, we dive deep into these other minds—and into some of their less appreciated capacities. Bat don’t just echolocate, they also sing. And, as we’ll see, they sing with gusto.
My guest today is Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild. She directs the Behavioral Ecology and Bioacoustics Lab at the Natural History Museum of Berlin. She and her team study bat communication, cognition, and social life; they focus in particular on bat social vocalizations—what we might call bat signals.
Here, we do a bit of Bats 101. We talk about how bats form a spectacularly diverse group, or taxon. We talk about the mechanics of echolocation. We talk about the mind-bogglingly boisterous acoustic world of bats and how they’re able to navigate it. We discuss Mirjam and her team’s recent paper in Science magazine, showing that baby bat pups babble much like human infants. And, last but not least, we talk about what it’s like to be a bat.
As I say in this conversation, I’ve always been a bit unnerved by bats, but part of me also knew they were seriously cool. But really, I didn’t know the half of it. There’s so much more to these creatures than meets the casual eye.
One last thing before we jump in: as a little bonus, for this episode Mirjam was kind enough to share some examples of the bat calls we discuss in the episode. So there’s a bit of an audio appendix at the end where you can hear slowed-down versions.
On to my chat with Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild. Enjoy!