Frog-eating bats remember ringing tones years later

Frog-eating bats trained by researchers to associate a phone ring with a tasty treat could remember what they learned in the wild for up to four years, according to a new study. published in Current Biology

Researchers introduced 49 frog-eating bats to a series of ringtones that caught their attention, and taught them to associate flying to just one of the tones with a reward: a baitfish snack.

Between one and four years later, eight of those bats were recaptured and re-exposed to the food-related ringtone. They all flew to the sound and six flew all the way to the speaker and took the food reward, meaning they expected to find food. Control bats with no prior training on the sounds were relatively unmoved by the exposure to the unfamiliar tones.

“I was surprised,” said lead author May Dixona postdoctoral scientist in evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University, formerly at the University of Texas at Austin. “I went into this thought 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 comes at a real cost. Four years seems like a long time to holding on to a sound you may never hear again.”

Dixon led this study at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama while she was a graduate student in Mike Ryan’s lab at UT Austin.

“The environment previous generations experienced can be vastly different from the environment an animal is born in — and it can also change throughout an animal’s life,” she said. “Trying to figure out how animals learn and use memory is one way to figure out how they’re going to fare in a life of change in the modern world.”

Despite the human tendency to assume that long memory gives our species an intelligence advantage, nature shows us that memory flexibility – also known as adaptive forgetting – can be important for survival.

In the first phase, individual frog-eating bats captured for a battery of cognition tests were exposed in the lab to a very attractive sound: the mating call of the male túngara frog, one of this bat’s favorite prey. Flying to that sound was rewarded with a piece of baitfish placed on wire mesh above the speaker.

Over time, the sound was mixed with and gradually replaced by a ringtone, but the reward was the same. Researchers then introduced three other ringtones, none of which were related to a food reward. Bats were trained to distinguish the differences and eventually stopped flying in the direction of the unrewarded sounds. All bats were chipped and returned to the wild.

A year later and three more years later, Dixon caught bats and identified eight of the first trial by their microchips. In a follow-up test of their response to the original rewarded ringtone, all eight trained bats flew quickly to the sound and could tell the difference between that ringtone and a new, steady tone, although many of the bats did jump to an unrewarded sound from the first. training.

When 17 untrained bats were exposed to these sounds, they usually twitched their ears in response to the sounds, but did not fly toward them.

“The study taught us a lot because there are relatively few studies of long-term memory in wildlife, and we don’t yet have a systematic understanding of long-term memories in nature,” Dixon said. “If we can collect additional data on different species of bats, we can pull this apart and see which life histories select for long memories.”

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). Co-authors are Gerald Carter of Ohio State, Patricia Jones of Bowdoin College, and Rachel Page of STRI.

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