No other mammals besides humans are able to use such complex vocal sequences to communicate, Smotherman says.
The songs bats sing are similar to bird songs. Scientists have understood the link between bird songs and the bird brain for years, but the architecture of a bird brain is very different from that of a mammal brain, Smotherman explains, so it is difficult to apply knowledge about bird communication to human speech.
The brains of all mammals are organized in basically the same way, so a bat brain has many of the same structures as a human brain. This makes it easier to infer things about human speech from studying bat communication. The researchers first goal is to locate the part of the bat brain responsible for singing. The bat brain has to have some higher vocal center thats responsible for organizing these [vocal] sequences and patterns, and we just dont know where it is yet, Smotherman says. So were using molecular techniques to identify which regions of the brain are most active during singing.
Smotherman and his team maintain about 75 bats in their lab. They usually collect the bats from schools and churches that report bats in their buildings. [By doing this,] we dont have to feel like were taking them out of the wild, Smotherman says. He adds that the bats are not aggressive and are a fantastic bat for the lab because they are quite friendly.
Smotherman hopes that over the next decade, the group can apply its research to knowledge of human speech and help shed light on language disorders. The fact that human speech is so unique has really constrained research in this area, Smotherman says. Compared to other areas of neuroscience, were way behind in understanding even the most basic issues of how [speech] works.
|Contact: Keith Randall|
Texas A&M University