Basic bat navigation | Global Ideas | DW | 26.10.2015
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Global Ideas

Basic bat navigation

A new study suggests that bat flight might be lot less complex than previously thought.

People have long been fascinated by the ability of bats to navigate in complete darkness using echolocation to guide them. These small creatures emit a sound and then listen for its echo in order to avoid hitting obstacles during flight. However, very little is known about how bats actually interpret what they hear. A #link: study# suggests that this process may in fact be much simpler than previously thought.

The current theory is that bats interpret the echoes to identify specific objects like trees or walls and determine where they are located relative to their own position. But a team of researchers from the University of Antwerp and the University of Bristol suggests that such a process would be far too complex to work, especially when split-second decisions are needed to avoid slamming into any inconveniently-placed obstacles.

The bat's thinking appears to be much more straightforward. The researchers proposed a bat may simply compare how loud the echo is in the left ear versus the right and then turn its flight path away from the louder echo, thus maneuvering away from a potential obstacle. Also, if the echo comes more quickly (i.e. the obstacle is closer), they would turn more sharply than if there was a longer delay.

Such a simple mechanism would work much more reliably than one that requires the bats to analyze the exact position of objects in their way. It would also explain how they make the split-second decisions needed to navigate in a seemingly effortless manner through often highly complex terrain.

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