Timing matters: sonar call groups facilitate target localization in bats

Front Physiol. 2014 May 12;5:168. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2014.00168. eCollection 2014.


To successfully negotiate a cluttered environment, an echolocating bat must control the timing of motor behaviors in response to dynamic sensory information. Here we detail the big brown bat's adaptive temporal control over sonar call production for tracking prey, moving predictably or unpredictably, under different experimental conditions. We studied the adaptive control of vocal-motor behaviors in free-flying big brown bats, Eptesicus fuscus, as they captured tethered and free-flying insects, in open and cluttered environments. We also studied adaptive sonar behavior in bats trained to track moving targets from a resting position. In each of these experiments, bats adjusted the features of their calls to separate target and clutter. Under many task conditions, flying bats produced prominent sonar sound groups identified as clusters of echolocation pulses with relatively stable intervals, surrounded by longer pulse intervals. In experiments where bats tracked approaching targets from a resting position, bats also produced sonar sound groups, and the prevalence of these sonar sound groups increased when motion of the target was unpredictable. We hypothesize that sonar sound groups produced during flight, and the sonar call doublets produced by a bat tracking a target from a resting position, help the animal resolve dynamic target location and represent the echo scene in greater detail. Collectively, our data reveal adaptive temporal control over sonar call production that allows the bat to negotiate a complex and dynamic environment.

Keywords: active sensing; echolocation behavior; sonar call timing; spatial perception; target tracking.