Bats open wide to focus their ultrasonic beams

Jens Rydell

Bats open wide to focus their ultrasonic beams

For bats, too many echoes can be like blurry vision. That’s because the nocturnal creatures navigate by bouncing ultrasonic sound off of their surroundings, a technique known as echolocation. In cramped spots, these sounds can reverberate, creating a noisy background that clouds the mammals’ sonic sight. Now, new research published online before print in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has discovered one way that bats might overcome this auditory ambush. Scientists found that the animals modify the width of their navigation pulses on the fly by adjusting the size of their mouth gape. The researchers used an array of cameras, flashes, and ultrasonic recorders to take snapshots of bats while they swooped down to take a sip at a desert pond in Israel. As the bats descended toward the confined banks of the pond, they opened their mouths wider to more tightly focus their sound pulses. As the bats left, they narrowed their mouths, projecting an ultrasonic beam up to four times wider than on the descending leg. These counterintuitive effects were due to diffraction, which causes sound waves traveling through a smaller hole to spread out more. The researchers repeated the experiment with captive bats and found the same effect, controlling for the possibility that they had observed a behavior tied to drinking. The team writes that these changes in gape allow the animals to “zoom in” on their view of an area, potentially reducing the amount of distracting echoes in a tight space.

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