When it comes to echolocation, some bats just wing it

Although fruit bats such as this one were thought not to be able to echolocate, new research finds that some fruit bats can use sonar clicks from their wings to navigate in the dark. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al.

Although fruit bats such as this one were thought not to be able to echolocate, new research finds that some fruit bats can use sonar clicks from their wings to navigate in the dark. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al.

My latest piece for NationalGeographic.com is about scientists discovering that some bats can echolocate using sonar clicks from their wings.

In every previously known example of echolocation, animals such as bats, dolphins, some birds and even some shrews use some sort of vocal organ (larynx, tongue, ‘sonar lips’ etc) to produce high-frequency sounds that they then detect bouncing off of surrounding objects.

Even more surprising, the researchers discovered this ability in bat species that were thought not to be able to echolocate at all (they have large eyes and seem to mostly rely on vision). Scientists now think that this kind of echolocation might be more widespread than they had suspected.

You can read all the details here. Interestingly, although they figured out that the clicks were coming from the wings, they still don’t know exactly how the wings are creating this sound.

There was a lot about the work that was really interesting, including details that I couldn’t include in the piece due to space constraints. For example, of the 3 species they tested, the one that lived in dark caves seemed to generate the most wing clicks, while the one that lived in trees and flew slowly had the least. So maybe how much different fruit bats rely on this ability depends on where and how they live, which makes sense.

And the experiments sounded quite challenging…it turns out bats aren’t the easiest to work with, and to test their ability to echolocate the experiments had to be done in complete darkness. In addition, the researchers were from Tel Aviv University in Israel, but did their experiments in Thailand because that’s where these bats were, and they had a limited amount of time to design and run all their experiments.

That meant very little sleep, and no time to do anything other than bat experiments (One of the researchers told me after multiple trips there they still haven’t seen the sea, or Bangkok!) And most of the work involved standing all night in a pitch-dark room, in temperatures of around 38 degrees celsius (100 degrees fahrenheit), occasionally getting pissed on by bats…

But despite the challenges, they stuck with it, and discovered something really cool and interesting. Although they must have been quite relieved when the experiments worked 🙂

P.S.
I realize I haven’t posted much recently. That’s partly because I traveled a bunch, and partly because all the articles I’ve worked on during this time have yet to be published, but I’ll update with links to them whenever they’re up.

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