Bird echolocation inspires new engineering

August 2, 2017 by Birgitte Svennevig, University of Southern Denmark
Oilbirds fly in a cave. Credit: University of Southern Denmark

All animals use a combination of senses to survive. But where the majority typically rely on one or two especially sensitive sensory systems, the oilbird excels by apparently having keen senses all-around.

In addition to its extremely sensitive vision, the oilbird has the neural foundation for a powerful olfactory , bristles by the beak for tactile sensation, and a powerful echolocation sense, normally found in bats and cetaceans.

"This complex sensory apparatus, where the animal has the ability to combine input from so many well-developed senses, is interesting to study," says Signe Brinkløv of the Sound, Communication and Behaviour Group at the Department of Biology, University of Southern Denmark.

As a biologist, she is interested in understanding how the oilbird uses its senses to achieve the best possible conditions in its natural surroundings. From a more applied perspective, she wants to apply knowledge of animal sensory systems in new engineering.

Oilbirds fly in dark cave. Credit: University of Southern Denmark

"We have come a long way towards understanding individual senses. But senses complement each other, and the balance between different sensory inputs affects the behaviour of the animal when tackling various challenges—this becomes a very complex field of study, which is difficult to transfer from laboratory to natural conditions. If we can learn more about it, perhaps we can transfer the knowledge to technological developments," she says.

An example is the interaction between vision and the sense of hearing, which the animal uses when it echolocates. With echolocation, the animal emits sounds that are returned as echoes from the surroundings and enables it to judge the distance to surroundings or distinguish between food items and other features.

"Today, drones are often controlled manually by a drone operator who is dependent on the video footage from the drone and thus the sense of sight in order to control it. But it quickly becomes difficult to navigate with such a system in darkness or when visibility is poor. If you could combine the sense of sight and echolocation on a drone to navigate based on input from both systems, then more opportunities open up. For instance, it could fly safely and perhaps autonomously in the dark or in between trees in a forest," says Signe Brinkløv.

Signe Brinkløv and her colleagues have studied the echolocation of oilbirds in Trinidad. Oilbirds are nocturnal and live in caves in groups of up to several thousand individuals. At night, they leave the cave to find food. Their ability to echolocate enables them to navigate to and from their nests without bumping into the rocky walls of the cave, even in pitch black darkness.

Oilbirds nesting in cave. Credit: University of Southern Denmark

The researchers hope that with further study of the interaction between oilbird vision and echolocation, they can develop a model that can be applied by sensory researchers and robotics engineers.

The study was published in Royal Society Open Science. It is based on sound recordings of echolocating cave-dwelling oilbirds at Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad. The authors are Signe Brinkløv, Coen Elemans and John Ratcliffe.

Signe Brinkløv is a biologist at Department of Biology. Apart from birds, she also studies porpoise and bat communication. The oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) got its name because just before leaving the nest, the fledglings become so fat that their weight exceeds that of the adults. Just like whales, oilbirds have been used in the past for extraction of oil. Oilbirds also produce other sounds than their echolocation signals, which has led to several Spanish nicknames, including Guácharo and Diablotin (little devil), reflecting ghostly sounding calls which led the local Indians to compare the entrance to the birds' caves with that to the land of the dead.

Explore further: Exploring the potential of human echolocation

More information: Signe Brinkløv et al, Oilbirds produce echolocation signals beyond their best hearing range and adjust signal design to natural light conditions, Royal Society Open Science (2017). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.170255

Related Stories

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017

People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

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. ...

Bats are surprisingly fast decision makers

March 18, 2015

Bats are not as stereotyped when they hunt as previously believed. New research shows that these flying mammals are capable of making ultra-fast decisions about how to attack their prey - or maybe even call off the attack. ...

Echolocation acts as substitute sense for blind people

December 22, 2014

Recent research carried out by scientists at Heriot-Watt University has demonstrated that human echolocation operates as a viable 'sense', working in tandem with other senses to deliver information to people with visual impairment.

Whispering bats are 100 times louder than previously thought

December 12, 2008

Annemarie Surlykke from the University of Southern Denmark is fascinated by echolocation. She really wants to know how it works. Surlykke equates the ultrasound cries that bats use for echolocation with the beam of light ...

Recommended for you

Friendlier fish may be quicker to take the bait

July 16, 2018

The bluegill on your dinner plate might have been more social than the rest of its group, according to a new study from the University of Illinois, and its removal from the lake could mean major changes for the remaining ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 02, 2017
WHEN ARE WE going to get ALL These Skills?
1) Dogs' Olfactory Sense
2) Bats', Oilbirds' Echolocation Skill
3) Ability to swim like Fish & Fly like Birds
AND SO MANY OTHERS....Like Running as fast as Cheetah ! Getting As Big As a Dinosaur, Photosynthesizing like Plants etc.,
not rated yet Aug 02, 2017
Oilbirds eat fruit that is rich in fat and oil, which provides the energy needed to fly. When chicks are fed these fruits before they are able to fly, they become very fat, often growing larger than the adults. While adult birds weigh from 13 to 16 ounces (375 to 455 grams), a seventy-day-old oilbird chick weighs approximately 21 ounces (600 grams). As the young bird develops, the parents feed it less often. The combination of less food and growing into adulthood causes the oilbird to lose weight. Oilbirds got their name from the fact that in the past chicks were captured and boiled down in order to make oil.

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.