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article imageBat navigation revealed

By Tim Sandle     Dec 7, 2014 in Environment
Two new papers show how bats navigate their environments. It seems that the flying mammals have specialized brain cells that track their movements as they navigate through space and utilize a series of audible clicks.
According to the first paper, bats possess a complex neural compass that tracks their movements as they expertly crawl or fly through their environment. Researchers showed this by using a newly-developed tracking device to monitor the head angles of naturally behaving Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) while recording electrical impulses from single brain cells.
With this study, scientists discovered that the bats have the head-direction sensing cells, which respond to directionality in the horizontal plane. The researchers also found new types orientation cells: ones that responded to pitch, or vertical orientation, roll, or tilt to the left or right, plus cells that responded to combinations of those orientations. All of these cells combine to encode a doughnut-shape compass within bats’ neural substrates that help them orient themselves in space as they perform impressive aerial feats, often in dim or lightless conditions.
The findings from the first paper were published in Nature, with the study titled "Three-dimensional head-direction coding in the bat brain."
With the second study, researchers from Tel Aviv University have shown that three species of fruit bats that were once considered to rely primarily on vision and not echolocation for navigation do in fact produce clicks from their wings that they use to perform a more rudimentary version of echolocation. To show this, researchers used sophisticated recording equipment which was trained on fruit bats released in a completely darkened room, they heard audible clicks from the wings of the flying animals.
The second set of findings have been published in Current Biology, in a paper called "Nonecholocating Fruit Bats Produce Biosonar Clicks with Their Wings."
These inquiries throw up some interesting questions, according to The Scientist. For instance: Do different bats encode 3-D space in different ways? Is the compass hard wired or built and refined through development? Future studies will hopefully answer these questions.
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