'Non-echolocating' fruit bats actually do echolocate, with wing clicks

December 4, 2014, Cell Press
In a discovery that overturns conventional wisdom about bats, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on Dec. 4 have found that Old World fruit bats -- long classified as "non-echolocating" -- actually do use a rudimentary form of echolocation. Perhaps most surprisingly, the clicks they emit to produce the echoes that guide them through the darkness aren't vocalizations at all. They are instead produced by the bats' wings, although scientists don't yet know exactly how the bats do it. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al.

In a discovery that overturns conventional wisdom about bats, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on December 4 have found that Old World fruit bats—long classified as "non-echolocating"—actually do use a rudimentary form of echolocation. Perhaps most surprisingly, the clicks they emit to produce the echoes that guide them through the darkness aren't vocalizations at all. They are instead produced by the bats' wings, although scientists don't yet know exactly how the bats do it.

"I was surprised by the fact that all of the fruit bats we recorded clicked and by the fact that clicks are produced by the wings," says Yossi Yovel of Tel Aviv University in Israel. "Arjan and I still find that hard to believe."

Yovel and postdoctoral fellow Arjan Boonman got their first hint about the fruit bats from a friendly man on a bus in Indonesia who told them about a species of bat that clicked with its wings. As further confirmation, Boonman found a single old paper about a fruit bat with wings that clicked, but it wasn't clear whether those clicks were good for anything.

Rather than look for that one earlier-described species in particular, Yovel suggested something else: "Why not check other fruit bats?"

They selected a total of 19 wild individuals representing three species of fruit bat and different parts of the evolutionary family tree to find that all of them did produce audible clicks with their wings.

"We did all we could to prove it wrong, including sealing the bats' mouths and anesthetizing their tongues, but nothing stopped them from clicking, except for when we interfered with their wing flaps," Yovel says.

Further study showed that two of the three species increased their clicking rate by a factor of three to five or even more when placed in a dark tunnel, implying that the clicks are a natural behavior for the bats.

A bat landing on the rewarded object in complete darkness (movie taken in IR). The movie shows that the bat has a general knowledge of the location of the object, but it cannot use echolocation to find the landing platform (white horizontal platform at the center of the black board) or estimate the distance to the object. The bat makes 3 attempts to land, but only lands on the board from which it was difficult for bats to reach the platform. For comparison see supplementary movie 2 which was taken in the light where the bat smoothly lands on the feeding platform at the first attempt. This movie also proves that bats could not rely on vision in the dark condition. The audio in the movie was not recorded in synchrony with the video. Because we did not synchronize audio recordings with the IR video (only with the high speed) we could not provide the accurate audio. We chose to add a representative audio track which was recorded in the same experiment and approximately at the same time order to give the reader a feeling of what clicking sounded like. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al

Tests of the animals' ability to find their way in the dark showed that the fruit bats do have abilities, although they are poorer than those of other echolocating species. The fruit bats constantly crashed into thick cables, but they could readily learn to discriminate between larger objects: an acoustically reflective black board versus a similar-looking sheet of cloth. Even with large objects, however, the fruit bats didn't exactly come in for a smooth landing, suggesting that their ability is rather rudimentary in comparison to that of bats that rely on clicks produced from their larynxes.

An Egyptian fruit bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus) lands on a 10cm diameter target when relying on echolocation. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al

The findings are interesting in light of earlier suggestions that echolocation may have evolved initially for bats to identify and avoid crashing into large objects such as cave walls, Boonman and Yovel say. The new discovery in fruit bats offers insight into how this sophisticated ability in other bats may have evolved over time, although it is unlikely that the laryngeal clicks of those other bats evolved directly from fruit bats' wing clicks. In fact, Yovel says, it's possible that echolocation in bats has independently evolved many times.

"When we study extant species of echolocating bats, we see a developed sensory system that has been adapted and improved over millions of years of evolution," Yovel says. "The rudimentary echolocation of the is one example of how the first types of echolocation may have evolved."

Explore further: How bats took over the night

More information: Current Biology, Boonman et al.: "Non-echolocating fruit bats produce bio-sonar clicks with their wings" www.cell.com/current-biology/a … 0960-9822(14)01425-0

Related Stories

How bats took over the night

December 12, 2013

Blessed with the power of echolocation—reflected sound—bats rule the night skies. There are more than 1,000 species of these echolocating night creatures, compared with just 80 species of non-echolocating nocturnal birds. ...

Hungry bats compete for prey by jamming sonar

November 6, 2014

In their nightly forays, bats hunting for insects compete with as many as one million hungry roost-mates. A study published today in Science shows that Mexican free-tailed bats jam the sonar of competitors to gain advantage ...

Recommended for you

Humans account for little next to plants, worms, bugs

May 21, 2018

When you weigh all life on Earth, billions of humans don't amount to much compared to trees, earthworms or even viruses. But we really know how to throw what little weight we have around, according to a first-of-its-kind ...

How animals holler

May 21, 2018

While humans can only broadcast about one percent of their vocal power through their speech, some animals and mammals are able to broadcast 100 percent. The secret to their long-range howls? A combination of high pitch, a ...

Profiling the genome hundreds of variations at a time

May 21, 2018

Geneticists have been using model organisms ranging from the house mouse to the single-cell bakers' yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to study basic biological processes that regulate human development and physiology, and ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.