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Bats Use Leaves As Mirrors To Find Camouflaged Insects

  • picture cute brown bat smiling upside down

    Before we get started, lets go over some bat facts (da na na na na na na na bat faaacts). Bats are mammals (the only mammals that can fly) and vary widely in size, with the smallest bat's wingspan being 5.91 inches, and the largest bat's wingspan being 5 feet 7 inches. 

    There are over 1,200 species of bats and most live off fruit or insects - apart from vampire bats, which drink blood (not human blood, don't worry). They hang upside down to sleep, wrapping their wings around them for warmth. How cute is that? 

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  • three bats flying against green trees at sunset

    So what did scientists discover, you ask? First, we must understand a little about how bats get around. Most bats are nocturnal and have poor eyesight, so they use echolocation to navigate in the darkness. While flying, bats emit ultrahigh-frequency sound waves (which lay outside the range of human ears) that bounce off their surroundings and return to the bats as echos. The bats are able to decipher these echos and understand the size, shape and location of their surroundings. Dolphins and whales also use echolocation, but with sounds that the human ear can hear (and in water, of course). 

  • five bats hanging upside down on a tree branch

    That's pretty cool, isn't it? But wait. It gets even better. On the 1st August 2019, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute released a paper detailing how they discovered that bats (common big-eared bats were used for the study) are actually much more ingenious than we thought they were. While flying, bats use the leaves around them to act as mirrors to their ultrahigh-frequency calls. When they approach the leaves of a tree at an angle, they use the leaves as "acoustic mirrors" and the echo that comes back tells them where their prey is, even if it's not moving. 

  • cute bat with big ears in someone's hand

    Until this discovery, scientists thought it was a sensory impossibility for bats to be able to locate silent, still insects on the back of leaves using echolocation. While echolocation allows bats to determine the shape, size and location of their surroundings, scientists believed that if insects stayed still among tree leaves, the bat's echolocation call would bounce off the leaf and echo to the bat as a solid surface, hiding the insect (which is known as acoustic camouflage). 

    Scientists were stumped at how bats got around this acoustic camouflage and located the insects, until they looked at the way bats approach the leaves. The scientists learned that when the bats approached the leaves at angles of 30 degrees or greater, the acoustic camouflage vanished and the leaves became acoustic mirrors instead. 

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  • common big eared bat cute

    These findings are not only useful for understanding bats and their use of echolocation - it helps us understand any animals that use echolocation. That includes humans! Although we didn't develop it naturally as a hunting mechanism, humans use echolocation, or sonar, in submarines and navigation. 

  • cute black bat resting on someone's hand

    So next time you see a cauldron of bats (yes, that is the correct collective noun), don't just think of them as evil creatures that morph into Dracula and might get stuck in your hair. Instead, think of them as cute (like furry little puppies with wings), intelligent creatures that can teach us humans a lot. 


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