We all remember the movie about a man who could uniquely talk to animals. Reports tell us that portable sensors and artificial intelligence may make a form of human-animal communication possible. Unlike that movie and the work of Penny Patterson using sign language to communicate with Koko the gorilla, the research goal is understanding animal communication instead of expecting them to use human language. Researchers use digital bioacoustics to record the animals and artificial intelligence to interpret what they say.
So far, scientists have studied the communication of bats and bees. Using tiny digital bioacoustic recorders, researchers at Tel Aviv University have gathered bat communication at frequencies above the limit of human hearing, over 20,000 hertz. Computers lower the frequency and slow it down to make it audible to humans, and artificial intelligence compiles the data to make it intelligible. Gerry Carter at Ohio State University has determined that bats have individual names, or “signature calls.” They argue over food, and mother bats communicate with their babies.
Understanding animal communication can involve more than sounds. Dr. Tim Landgraf at Freie Universitat in Berlin has deciphered bee communication, which involves both sounds and body movement. He has decoded the signals which tell other bees where to find nectar or warn of danger. Landgraf even built a robot name RoboBee that can enter a hive and control what the bees do. For example, when he put nectar in a place where no honeybee had visited and then told the bees where the nectar was, they went there.
Helping animals avoid pollution and directing them to safe food sources are potential applications of this technology. It is essential to understand the big difference between communication and language. These examples and future research with animals involve communication. Language is far more than communication and deals with culture, morals, and symbolism. As this field of understanding grows, its uses will also increase, and ethical concerns will become apparent.
One has to wonder how Adam and Eve communicated in the garden. They certainly did not speak English. Bat communication is obviously different from bee communication. Understanding animal communication is challenging since every animal is different, but that shows another level of design that science is just now beginning to understand. The more we learn about the creation, the more we have to be amazed at the wisdom of the Creator.
What animals have been maligned and villainized the most by humanity, yet they are the unsung heroes of the animal kingdom? The Nature Conservancy and Bat Conservation International say the misunderstood bats fit that description. People think that bats hunt human victims and drink blood. On the contrary, Vampire bats do not go after human victims and are shy and gentle in behavior. They also only make up a tiny percentage of the total bat population.
Studies of the Bracken Cave bats in Texas show they eat 140 tons of flying beetles, winged ants, and moths every night, saving a billion dollars in crop damage. That is just in one area of Texas, but other bats eat their body weight in insects every night. Bats also are essential pollinators and disperse hundreds of seeds. Bats are vital to the balance of our natural world, and scientists studying bats tell us that they are declining in number. Can you imagine what life on Earth would be like if we eliminated the animals that eat insects?
As a teenager in southern Indiana, I was a spelunker – one who explores caves. The caves we explored had massive numbers of bats, and several times we were in the caves when the bats were flying out for their feeding binges. I never was bitten by a bat, and they used their echolocation to avoid us. When we found huge piles of bat guano, it never occurred to me that it all came from bugs they had eaten.
God has intelligently designed the systems of life on planet Earth, and we need to care for and protect them. When humans destroy animals such as the misunderstood bats, we invite disaster for our well-being.
Can design have multiple purposes? That is a question asked by some scientists in a study led by Jesse Barber of Boise (Idaho) State University. The specific design feature they studied is the flashing light of fireflies. Do they have more than one purpose for their flashes?
We always believed that a firefly flashes its light to attract mates. That is reasonable and true, but it is an oversimplification of what the flashing does. Many times living organisms have a warning system built into their design to let predators know they are not good to eat. Barber and his associates suggested that fireflies taste bad and that the flashing warns predators not to eat them.
To test this theory, the researchers put bats that had never been around fireflies into a cage with fireflies. The bats learned in two or three interactions that a flashing bug is not good to eat. Barber says the bats quickly did a routine of “catch, taste, drop.”
Barber’s team then painted the flashing end of some lightning bugs with two coats of black paint so the bats could not see the flashes. Bats faced with the painted fireflies took up to 45 minutes to learn not to try to eat them. It seems evident that the flashing of a lightning bug has more than one function.
It is easy for humans to minimize the design that is needed for life to exist on Earth. How do you feed massive numbers of birds, especially in the spring when winter has taken away most of their food sources, and their food needs are maximized as they lay eggs and feed baby birds? In the past scientists have shrugged their shoulders and imagined that there are food sources we don’t recognize that fill this gap until the summer season generates sufficient seeds and insects to sustain the growing populations. Similar problems exist for many other animals like bats that depend on insects for their nutritional needs.
In the April 2017 issue of Scientific American (page 84), there is an interesting report about previously unknown migrations of insects. We have known about monarch butterflies for some time, but this study by British researchers shows that migrations of insects are massive. Over southern Britain alone there are 3.3 trillion insects migrating. That is an average of 3200 tons of bugs moving through the skies over Britain every year. The study also reports that similar patterns have been observed in Texas, India, and China.
The complexity of this migration is astounding. Insects don’t live long enough for one bug to complete the migration. Researchers found that in some cases six generations were involved to complete a migration. The insects do not just get randomly blown about. They travel in a well-programmed pattern taking advantage of wind direction and speed. The elevation at which they fly to get the strongest support for their journey is carefully chosen. For a number of reasons, spring migrations are different from fall migrations.