Innovative bat research
Biologist Ahana Aurora Fernandez is the recipient of this year’s Marthe Vogt Award. In her doctoral thesis she investigated the development of the vocal repertoire of greater sac-winged bat pups.
10/31/2022 · News · Museum für Naturkunde - Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung · Lebenswissenschaften · Menschen
In her doctoral thesis, which she wrote at Museum für Naturkunde Berlin (Berlin’s Museum of Natural History) and Freie Universität Berlin, Fernandez investigated the development of the vocal repertoire of greater sac-winged bat pups in the wild. Among her many groundbreaking discoveries, she found out that – just like toddlers – pups of this bat species go through a stage of vocalization practice referred to as the “babbling stage” – and that this babbling stage has similar characteristics to those in humans. The award ceremony will take place at the Leibniz Headquarters in Berlin, Chausseestraße 111, on November 2, 6 to 8 p.m., during the Berlin Science Week. Ulrike Gote, Senator for Science, Health, Care and Equality of the State of Berlin, is expected to be a keynote speaker.
Ahana Aurora Fernandez studied social vocalizations and their development in wild greater sac-winged bat pups in the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica and Panama, and analyzed them using innovative methods of a fledgling discipline: comparative biolinguistics. She discovered not only that pups of this social bat species, which is widespread in Central and South America, go through a “babbling stage” just like toddlers, but also that bat mothers respond to this “babbling” with special sounds, changing their vocal timbre (i.e., “color” of voice). This phenomenon can also be observed in humans in the form of “motherese” (i.e., speaking in a soothing sing-song voice). This makes the greater sac-winged bat the only other mammalian species besides humans known to date to possess these abilities.
Ahana Aurora Fernandez’s doctoral thesis contributes significantly to a deeper understanding of vocal development in humans and the development of the human language. Her thesis was awarded the top grade of “excellent” (summa cum laude) by Freie Universität Berlin’s Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy. The jury stated that in her career to date, Ahana Aurora Fernandez has not only been an extremely productive scientist, publishing results of high originality in numerous articles in renowned scientific journals such as “Science”, but that she has also been a dedicated science communicator who uses events and podcasts to share her research findings with the general public.
Ahana Aurora Fernandez explained: “It may seem astonishing to draw parallels between bat pups and humans, but research on vocal development in social mammals helps us to determine and better understand the underlying cognitive abilities and mechanisms of complex communication. My doctoral thesis shows that long-term studies on animals in the wild are a prerequisite for recording such complex behavior in detail and being able to put the subsequent findings into a broader context.”
Each year since 2001, the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V. (FVB) has conferred the Marthe Vogt Award on an outstanding young female researcher doing work in a field covered by one of the FVB institutes. The award is worth 3,000 euro.