Researchers discover how bats avoid collisions (w/ Video)

Mar 29, 2010
A Brown University-led team strapped microphones onto heads of big brown bats and recorded the sounds they emitted and the echoes that returned to learn how bats detect objects in space and successfully maneuver around them. Credit: James Simmons Lab, Brown University

For years, Brown University neuroscientist James Simmons has filmed bats as they flew in packs or individually chased prey in thick foliage. All the while, he asked himself why the bats never collided with objects in their paths or with each other.

"You wonder, how do they do it?" he said.

After a series of innovative experiments designed to mimic a thick forest, Simmons and colleagues at Brown and in Japan have discovered how are so adept at avoiding objects, real or perceived. In a paper published in the early edition, the scientists report that echolocating bats minimize interference by tweaking the frequencies of the sounds they emit — their broadcasts — to detect and maneuver around obstacles. The scientists also found that bats make mental templates of each broadcast and the echo it creates, to differentiate one broadcast/echo set from another.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Echolocating bats use rapid-fire broadcast-echo pairs to navigate through forests of obstacles. They make subtle changes in each broadcast to keep the pairs from blurring. These bats were flying at night through a forest in Belize. Credit: James Simmons, Brown University

The research is important, because it may lead to the design of better sonar and radar systems by capitalizing on the bats' natural ability to ferret out duplicative echoes in environments that otherwise could produce "phantom" objects.

The group created a 13-row long by 11-row wide U-shaped grid of ceiling-to-floor chain links to test big brown bats' ability to locate obstacles at various distances in their flight path and to make nearly instantaneous adjustments. The researchers ussed a miniature radio microphone created by the Japanese authors and attached it to the bats' heads to record their sounds (which are made in pairs). Other microphones placed in the room recorded the echoes produced from the bats' broadcasts, giving the researchers a comprehensive, accurate recording of the bats' echo-processing methods. The scientists also filmed the bats with high-resolution video cameras.

The team noticed almost immediately that the bats were confronted with overlapping echoes to their rapid firing of broadcasts. That could create confusion where obstacles were located and even produce objects that weren't really there.

"When there are a lot of obstacles in the environment, a bat needs to emit sounds quickly," said Mary Bates, a fourth-year graduate student at Brown and a contributing author on the paper. "It can't wait for another sound to return before updating its image" (of the scene in which it's flying).

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Brown University researchers discovered how the echoes from bats' sounds can overlap, which can cause confusion about the location of objects in their path. The blurring of sounds and echoes can be heard in this clip, slowed down 24 times from the original. Credit: James Simmons Lab, Brown University

An echo from the bat's first broadcast could masquerade as the echo from a subsequent broadcast. The bat overcomes this potentially confusing cascade of signals by making a template, or mental fingerprint, of each broadcast and corresponding echo, the team learned. That way, the bat needs only to slightly alter the frequency of its broadcast to create a broadcast/echo template that doesn't match the original. The team found that bats change the frequency of their broadcasts by no more than 6 kilohertz. That's a good thing, as bats' frequency range covers only roughly 20 to 100 kilohertz.

"They've evolved this, so they can fly in clutter," said Simmons, professor of neuroscience. "Otherwise, they'd bump into trees and branches."

Explore further: Little blue penguin back at sea after hospital stint

Related Stories

Roaring bats

Apr 30, 2008

Annemarie Surlykke from the Institute of Biology, SDU, Denmark, and her colleague, Elisabeth Kalko, from the University of Ulm, Germany, studied the echolocation behavior in 11 species of insect-eating tropical bats from ...

Team offers first look at how bats land (w/Video)

Mar 20, 2009

People have always been fascinated by bats, but the scope of that interest generally is limited to how bats fly and their bizarre habit of sleeping upside down. Until now, no one had studied how bats arrive ...

Recommended for you

Little blue penguin back at sea after hospital stint

1 hour ago

Wildbase Recovery Community Trust ambassador and Rangitikei MP Ian McKelvie joined Massey University veterinary staff to release a little blue penguin back into the sea at Himatangi Beach this morning.

Dolphins are attracted to magnets

23 hours ago

Dolphins are indeed sensitive to magnetic stimuli, as they behave differently when swimming near magnetized objects. So says Dorothee Kremers and her colleagues at Ethos unit of the Université de Rennes ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

seneca
3 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2010
I presume, bats can literally "see" the obstacles by using of sound in similar way, like people navigate with eyes - they've 3D model of neighboring reality in their brains. Bats are dual creatures with respect to casual energy spreading to humans: while humans are using transversal waves and spatial intervals for navigation, the bats are using a longitudinal waves and time intervals - they simply reverted the notion of space-time into time-space concept.
trekgeek1
not rated yet Mar 29, 2010
They could have saved a lot of time by turning one over and looking at the "FDMA" sticker under their wing.

I wonder how they avoid transmitting the same frequency as other individuals. It seems that by sheer probability given many individuals that two would transmit nearly identical "fingerprints".