Bats are often wrongly portrayed as blood-sucking vermin. However, researchers who study bats would prefer that you see them as intelligent and benevolent creatures.
Johns Hopkins University researchers have a new argument for bats. Winged mammals can predict the future.
According to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the echoes of insects-eating bats are used to build a 3D model of the environment around them while they fly, chasing prey. They then use these snapshots of the world as a way to predict the path of their prey’s flight, according to the research.
Although bats can’t see, they can track insects with great accuracy. They rely on visual cues as well as other signals.
Cynthia Moss, principal investigator of Johns Hopkins’ Matlab and a professor in psychological and brain sciences, and senior author of the week’s research stated that the findings could help scientists better understand how people perceive and process information.
She said, “We study bats but we’re interested in larger, more general questions.” “One question is how animals (including humans) can use the information they receive through their senses to predict what will happen in the future.”
How bats can make predictions
Moss stated that sports players have a special talent for quick predictions. However, they also have an advantage over bats in that they can track a ball’s movement as it bounces on a surface or flies through the air. Trees block the echoes of bats, which often chase prey in the dark.
Co-first author Clarice Diebold, Ph.D. candidate, said that bats hunt by echolocation. This is a process where they emit ultrasonic sounds and use information from the echo back to them to create a “3D record” of the world around them.
There are still gaps in these models of the world, as echoes bounce off trees or other objects that bats pass. Moss, Diebold, and Angeles Salles, co-first authors, tested whether bats could use those snapshots to build a model of where the object they are chasing will end up. This is similar to how a baseball player might try to catch a ball in the outfield. But instead of visuals, bats rely upon hearing.
Matlab-trained bats sit down on a platform inside their laboratory while controlling the trajectory of the insects they chased. Researchers were able to control the speed of the insect’s movements and then closely monitored the bats using a high-speed camera.
“What we discovered was that bats weren’t just using echo information to return, but were estimating where the target would be at a future point,” Diebold stated.
She said that the bats used echolocation to estimate the speed of the insect and the location where it should land.
Salles, a postdoctoral fellow, said that bats can predict when prey will reappear if they temporarily lose it behind clutter.
How research on bats can help humans
Moss admitted that some people might find the emphasis on bats in the lab “quirky” and too specialized. She said that bats are a strong subject for testing hypotheses about the human condition.
Moss stated that bats are special creatures. “They might hold the key to solving many of the problems humans face.”
Blind people may also use some of the same techniques bats use to hunt in darkness. They might tap their tongue or click their tongue to create images of the surrounding world. Blind people may be able to track objects by listening for changes in the echos.
Moss stated that researchers can better understand the process by which bats predict their prey’s arrival and use this information to help them develop devices to assist blind people.