Biol. Lett. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0685 (2009)

Humans, elephants and seals can do it, but can bats also imitate sounds? It's long been thought that the flying mammals can, and Mirjam Knörnschild at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and her colleagues set out to find the evidence.

They recorded a total of 337 songs from 17 pups of the greater sac-winged bat (Saccopteryx bilineata) in Costa Rica and compared them with 57 territorial songs from six adult males belonging to the same harems as the pups. Acoustic analysis showed that as the pups matured, their calls developed into territorial songs that were similar to those of harem males. The team ruled out relatedness, gender and physical maturation as factors. The bats learned through imitation.

The authors suggest that this mammalian model — easier to study than others — could permit further investgation of how vocal imitation evolved.