Faces of ESLR: Ahana Fernandez

Language, more than anything else, defines human nature. Language appears to be unique in the animal kingdom and, thus, the question of how and why language evolved is one of the most fascinating research questions for me. However, it is not just human language that fascinates me but also vocal (social) communication in various social non-human animals. I am intrigued by the communicative abilities of different species and driven by the curiosity about what, why and how animals communicate. And I believe that communication represents a window into the cognitive world of animals. My research focuses on the comparative biolinguistic approach: aiming to gain more knowledge about language evolution by investigating if and to what extend key features of language evolved in other species. 

I pursued my interest in vocal communication by starting to work with bats during my bachelor thesis. I am originally from Switzerland and for my bachelors and masters thesis, I worked with bats in captivity, investigating the information content of male vocalizations. During my master thesis, I was able to complement my descriptive work (i.e. description and analysis of vocalizations) with playback experiments. I learned how playback experiments are our (current) best tool to infer/confirm the informational content of vocal signals by “asking” the animals and observing their behavior in response to the playback. For my doctoral thesis, I moved to Berlin, Germany, and joined the lab of Mirjam Knörnschild. During my doctorate, I was introduced to fieldwork in the neotropics and the greater sac-winged bat, Saccopteryx bilineata. I was immediately hooked on fieldwork where I was allowed to work with wild animals. For several years, I travelled to Panama and Costa Rica to study the vocal ontogeny of wild pups. The sac-winged bat is a vocal production learner (i.e. acquires song through vocal imitation) and during ontogeny, pups engage in a conspicuous vocal practice behavior which is highly reminiscent of infant canonical babbling. While babbling pups acquire a part of their vocal repertoire through vocal learning – babbling thus indicates when learning is taking place. Saccopteryx bilineata is a highly social bat species and while babbling pups often interacted with their mothers. I studied the pup babbling behavior characteristics in detail and investigated if and how the social environment (i.e. individuals of the pups´ natal colony) shaped the pups´ vocal ontogeny. It appears that the social environment influences the pups´ babbling behavior in several aspects. Crucially, we found that the pup babbling behavior shares several traits that define infant canonical babbling. This work builds the foundation for my first postdoc that I recently started at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. 

I continue my fieldwork with S. bilineata and besides, I am starting to investigate the role of neuromolecular mechanisms during vocal learning. This is exciting because it offers me the possibility to combine behavioral ecology, bioacoustics and neurobiology to investigate the foundations of mammalian vocal learning and gain more knowledge about the biological foundations of language. Furthermore, I continue investigating how the social environment and social learning influence the acquisition of the adult vocal repertoire in pups. 

I am always curious to learn more about vocal ontogeny, vocal learning, social (vocal) communication, so if you want to collaborate, exchange ideas or just chat about animal communication write me an email.