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Science Communication


Bellowing bats and chemical cussing

by Leigh Krietsch Boerner
January 13, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 2


How bats hit high notes

A close-up of a Daubenton's bat on an orange background.
Credit: Shutterstock
Gone batty: Bats can growl and scream like death metal singers.

Bats, with their tiny creepy fingers and nightmare ratlike faces, are notorious for their use of echolocation, high-pitched clicking sounds, to find and catch prey. The flying mammals are also known to growl. But according to research by Coen Eleman and coworkers at the University of Southern Denmark, bats also emit specialized screams (PLoS Biology 2022, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001881).

In a technique akin to death-metal growls and Tuvan throat singing, bats create these screams by vibrating their “false vocal folds,” structures in the throat near the vocal cords. In humans, these mucus-​covered folds of skin sit just below the epiglottis. The team also found that the sounds bats use to echolocate come from thin vocal membranes that sit at the ends of their vocal cords. Humans don’t have these vocal membranes, says Jonas Håkansson, a postdoctoral researcher now at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and first author on the paper.

The team figured out the basics of bat vocalization by removing larynxes from Daubenton’s bats, blowing air over them, and filming the results with a high-speed camera. They found that echolocation calls occur at high frequencies, while the bat screaming was at a much lower frequency, Håkansson tells Newscripts.

The vocal range of bats is the highest in the mammalian world, the researchers say. Most mammals can span three to four octaves in their noisemaking. Humans can do about four, although super-humans such as Mariah Carey span up to five. For the bats in this study, the researchers found their vocal range to be seven. Those are some high notes.

If bats can scream, do they scream into the void? Do they like death metal music? Is a duet with Mariah in their future? This Newscriptster would love to see a concert with Mariah, a bevy of bats, and a good death metal band.


Oh #*%$(#&!

A young woman sits behind a lab bench holding a clipboard and screaming. She's wearing a white lab coat, blue nitrile gloves, and safety glasses. On the benchtop in front of her are a microscope, some screw-top bottles holding colored liquid, some pipetters, and some petri dishes.
Credit: Shutterstock
Science swears: Sometimes you just want to shout "Flux!"

Swearing, aka cussing, is pretty much universal. And according to researchers at the University of London, the sounds humans make when we swear are pretty similar across many languages. Linguists Shiri Lev‑Ari and Ryan McKay found that swear words tend not to include sounds made by the letters l, w, y, or r (Psychon. Bull. Rev. 2022, DOI: 10.3758/s13423-022-02202-0).

The team conducted a study called “How good is your ‘sweardar?’ ” The researchers asked participants to pick out swear words after hearing pairs of words spoken aloud. The trick was that neither of the words was profanity; the researchers had made them up based on real words from 20 languages. But in one of the words of each pair, there were more l, w, y, or r sounds. In a second study, the researchers sanitized actual swear words. For example, turning damn into darn. Then they asked participants if the altered words and phrases were acceptable for “polite company.”

Going by the researchers’ results, this Newscriptster wondered what chemistry words sound like swear words and turned to Twitter for a scientific sampling. Predictably, many of the suggestions from the chemistry community were chemistry terms that sound like actual English swear words—or just naughty phrases. For example, and in no particular order:

    ▸ Fucitol
    ▸ Fucose
    ▸ Mother liquor
    ▸ Uranate
    ▸ Stopcock
    ▸ Flux
    ▸ Skatole
    ▸ Arsole
    ▸ Bastardane
    ▸ Phthalic acid
    ▸ ISOPOOH (isoprene hydroxyhydroperoxides)

Others that didn’t fall into this first category tended to contain some good, hard consonants:

    ▸ Succinimide
    ▸ Schlenk
    ▸ Asymmetric
    ▸ Flask
    ▸ Acetate
    ▸ Sarcosine

Some personal favorites include: hydroxyl, alkane, diazo, and azidoazide, although that last word’s scary explosiveness might be eliciting an emotional reaction.

These words do have a general absence of l, w, y, and r sounds. But is the presence of hard sounds like k and t what makes them feel good to say? The next time you drop a flask or stub your toe, give one of the above a try and report back.

Please send comments, suggestions, and good swear words to


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