Why this matters
Vampire bats are distantly related to primates, yet they evolved many of the same prosocial behaviors, such as communal food sharing and social grooming. While studying these bats, we have three goals. First, we want to test current and controversial theories about the evolution of cooperation and its consequences for the animal mind. For example, is social experience or genetic similarity a better predictor of helping in vampire bats? Second, we want to gain insight into the mind of an animal that is so alien to us, and yet might be so similar in so many ways. Do vampire bats distinguish an in-group and out-group (like humans)? Finally, we want to understand more generally how genetic relatedness, brain chemistry, and social experience interact to predict prosocial behavior. For example, oxytocin increases trust and generosity in humans, but also exaggerates our tribalistic and xenophobic tendencies. Will it have the same effect on vampire bats or are humans unique in this respect? We hope you find these topics as profound and fascinating as we do!
When scientists talk about the social lives of animals, they typically measure genetic structure and the observable patterns of where they live. We want to take things further and closer. In short, we want to use food sharing to understand if and how vampire bats form social bonds. We also want to understand how competition among sharing partners and cooperation between partners might shape the social network.
Our experiments can also help us understand animal cooperation more generally. There has been much work on animal cooperation, but previous studies have either involved relatively simple organisms like microbes, plants, insects, and fish, or cognitively complex animals that have been trained to perform an artificial form of cooperation, like pulling a lever to deliver food. Our study is special because it allows us to conduct controlled experiments on a completely natural form of helping (food sharing) that occurs in the lab but has evolved in the wild.
We expect three important outcomes in the next 3 years. We will measure the extent to which vampire bats care about kinship, past social experience, and the possibilities of alternative partners. We will learn if and how vampire bats deter cheating. And we will gain insight into the role of oxytocin in prosocial behavior.
What your money can do
After years of observations from the field and from captive bats at other institutions, we are finally bringing a colony of vampire bats to our university. We are planning to give them lots of space to fly and socialize, and they will need a gallon of cow blood every week. We are also hoping to support undergraduate students that will help us take care of them. We think it will be a great way to provide research experience for young scientists. Funds will go primarily to caring for the bats, and to analyze sequences of DNA to assess relatedness. We can make this money go a long way!