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Understanding the biological foundations of language is vital to gaining insight into how the capacity for language may have evolved in humans. Animal models can be exploited to learn about the biological underpinnings of shared human traits, and although no other animals display speech or language, a range of behaviors found throughout the animal kingdom are relevant to speech and spoken language. To date, such investigations have been dominated by studies of our closest primate relatives searching for shared traits, or more distantly related species that are sophisticated vocal communicators, like songbirds. Herein I make the case for turning our attention to the Chiropterans, to shed new light on the biological encoding and evolution of human language-relevant traits. Bats employ complex vocalizations to facilitate navigation as well as social interactions, and are exquisitely tuned to acoustic information. Furthermore, bats display behaviors such as vocal learning and vocal turn-taking that are directly pertinent for human spoken language. Emerging technologies are now allowing the study of bat vocal communication, from the behavioral to the neurobiological and molecular level. Although it is clear that no single animal model can reflect the complexity of human language, by comparing such findings across diverse species we can identify the shared biological mechanisms likely to have influenced the evolution of human language.
Bats, Vocal Learning, Turn-Taking, Language, Language Evolution, Speech
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Vol. 24, no. 1 (2016-07-01).
Vernes, Sonja C., "What bats have to say about speech and language" (2016). KIP Articles. 5745.