Fruit bat’s echolocation may work like sophisticated surveillance sonar

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February 7, 2018

New research from the University of Washington suggests that the Egyptian fruit bat is using similar techniques to those preferred by modern-day military and civil surveillance. The results could inspire new directions for driverless cars and drones.

The 3-D mesh of a fruit bat’s head used in the computer model. Wu-Jung Lee and co-author Jessica Arbour scanned an actual fruit bat to create this 3-D digital model of the bat’s head shape using micro-computed tomography.Jessica Arbour/University of Washington

The new open-access paper in PLOS Biology shows how the animals are able to navigate using a different system from other bats.
“Before people thought that this bat was not really good at echolocation, and just made these simple clicks,” said lead author Wu-Jung Lee, a researcher at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “But this bat species is actually very special — it may be using a similar technique that engineers have perfected for sensing remotely.”

Wu-Jung Lee holds a skull of an Egyptian fruit bat from the Burke Museum’s collection. On the screen is the 3-D mesh of a fruit bat’s head shape used in the computer model.Mark Stone/University of Washington

While most other bats emit high-pitched squeals, the fruit bat simply clicks its tongue and produces signals that are more like dolphin clicks than other bats’ calls. Fruit bats can also see quite well, and the animals switch and combine sensory modes between bright and dark environments.
An earlier study showed that Egyptian fruit bats send clicks in different directions without moving their head or mouth, and suggested that the animals can perform echolocation, the form of navigation that uses sound, better than previously suspected.
“But no one knew how they do it, and that’s when I got excited, because there’s something going on …

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