Dynamic Echo Information Guides Flight in the Big Brown Bat

Front Behav Neurosci. 2016 Apr 25;10:81. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00081. eCollection 2016.


Animals rely on sensory feedback from their environment to guide locomotion. For instance, visually guided animals use patterns of optic flow to control their velocity and to estimate their distance to objects (e.g., Srinivasan et al., 1991, 1996). In this study, we investigated how acoustic information guides locomotion of animals that use hearing as a primary sensory modality to orient and navigate in the dark, where visual information is unavailable. We studied flight and echolocation behaviors of big brown bats as they flew under infrared illumination through a corridor with walls constructed from a series of individual vertical wooden poles. The spacing between poles on opposite walls of the corridor was experimentally manipulated to create dense/sparse and balanced/imbalanced spatial structure. The bats' flight trajectories and echolocation signals were recorded with high-speed infrared motion-capture cameras and ultrasound microphones, respectively. As bats flew through the corridor, successive biosonar emissions returned cascades of echoes from the walls of the corridor. The bats flew through the center of the corridor when the pole spacing on opposite walls was balanced and closer to the side with wider pole spacing when opposite walls had an imbalanced density. Moreover, bats produced shorter duration echolocation calls when they flew through corridors with smaller spacing between poles, suggesting that clutter density influences features of the bat's sonar signals. Flight speed and echolocation call rate did not, however, vary with dense and sparse spacing between the poles forming the corridor walls. Overall, these data demonstrate that bats adapt their flight and echolocation behavior dynamically when flying through acoustically complex environments.

Keywords: animal flight; corridor; echo flow; echolocation; sonar.