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Concept: Animal echolocation


The need to develop effective management strategies for insectivorous bat populations requires an understanding of factors influencing habitat use. Availability of pest prey, such as mosquitoes is likely to be one such factor. To assess whether this is the case, we radio-tracked Vespadelus vulturnus Thomas (little forest bat), a predator of Aedes vigilax Skuse (saltmarsh mosquito), in saltmarsh and adjacent coastal swamp forest during periods of high and low Ae. vigilax abundance. When mosquito abundance in structurally-open saltmarsh was similar to the more cluttered coastal swamp forest, use of saltmarsh by V. vulturnus was disproportionately greater than its availability, with saltmarsh selected preferentially for foraging. However, at times of low Ae. vigilax abundance in saltmarsh, use of saltmarsh by V. vulturnus was reduced and all habitats were used in proportion to availability in the study area. This is the first radio-tracking study to demonstrate a shift in foraging range by an insectivorous bat species correlated with fluctuations in the distribution and abundance of a particular prey resource. The shift in foraging range by V. vulturnus, corresponding with a spatio-temporal variation in abundance of Ae. vigilax highlights the importance of mosquitoes as a dietary item. Broadscale pest control of Ae. vigilax may have ecological implications for the diet and habitat use of V. vulturnus. An adaptive management approach is proposed, whereby careful monitoring of insectivorous bat populations is recommended before and after any application of broadscale mosquito control measures. We also suggest a precautionary approach is taken such that broadscale control of mosquitoes avoids the lactation period of bats, a time when their energetic demands are greatest and when there is reduced risk of contracting mosquito-borne diseases transmitted by Ae. vigilax.

Concepts: Insect, Mosquito, Animal echolocation, Aedes, Bat, Mosquito control, Microbat, Vespadelus


Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick was inspired by historical instances in which large sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus L.) sank 19th century whaling ships by ramming them with their foreheads. The immense forehead of sperm whales is possibly the largest, and one of the strangest, anatomical structures in the animal kingdom. It contains two large oil-filled compartments, known as the “spermaceti organ” and “junk,” that constitute up to one-quarter of body mass and extend one-third of the total length of the whale. Recognized as playing an important role in echolocation, previous studies have also attributed the complex structural configuration of the spermaceti organ and junk to acoustic sexual selection, acoustic prey debilitation, buoyancy control, and aggressive ramming. Of these additional suggested functions, ramming remains the most controversial, and the potential mechanical roles of the structural components of the spermaceti organ and junk in ramming remain untested. Here we explore the aggressive ramming hypothesis using a novel combination of structural engineering principles and probabilistic simulation to determine if the unique structure of the junk significantly reduces stress in the skull during quasi-static impact. Our analyses indicate that the connective tissue partitions in the junk reduce von Mises stresses across the skull and that the load-redistribution functionality of the former is insensitive to moderate variation in tissue material parameters, the thickness of the partitions, and variations in the location and angle of the applied load. Absence of the connective tissue partitions increases skull stresses, particularly in the rostral aspect of the upper jaw, further hinting of the important role the architecture of the junk may play in ramming events. Our study also found that impact loads on the spermaceti organ generate lower skull stresses than an impact on the junk. Nevertheless, whilst an impact on the spermaceti organ would reduce skull stresses, it would also cause high compressive stresses on the anterior aspect of the organ and the connective tissue case, possibly making these structures more prone to failure. This outcome, coupled with the facts that the spermaceti organ houses sensitive and essential sonar producing structures and the rostral portion of junk, rather than the spermaceti organ, is frequently a site of significant scarring in mature males suggest that whales avoid impact with the spermaceti organ. Although the unique structure of the junk certainly serves multiple functions, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that the structure also evolved to function as a massive battering ram during male-male competition.

Concepts: Bone, Structure, Animal echolocation, Sperm whale, Whale, Ambergris, Spermaceti, Moby-Dick


Echolocating bats construct an auditory world sequentially by analyzing successive pulse-echo pairs. Many other mammals rely upon a visual world, acquired by sequential foveal fixations connected by visual gaze saccades. We investigated the scanning behavior of bats and compared it to visual scanning. We assumed that each pulse-echo pair evaluation corresponds to a foveal fixation and that sonar beam movements between pulses can be seen as acoustic gaze saccades. We used a two-dimensional 16 microphone array to determine the sonar beam direction of succeeding pulses and to characterize the three dimensional scanning behavior in the common pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) flying in the field. We also used variations of signal amplitude of single microphone recordings as indicator for scanning behavior in open space. We analyzed 33 flight sequences containing more than 700 echolocation calls to determine bat positions, source levels, and beam aiming. When searching for prey and orienting in space, bats moved their sonar beam in all directions, often alternately back and forth. They also produced sequences with irregular or no scanning movements. When approaching the array, the scanning movements were much smaller and the beam was moved over the array in small steps. Differences in the scanning pattern at various recording sites indicated that the scanning behavior depended on the echolocation task that was being performed. The scanning angles varied over a wide range and were often larger than the maximum angle measurable by our array. We found that echolocating bats use a “saccade and fixate” strategy similar to vision. Through the use of scanning movements, bats are capable of finding and exploring targets in a wide search cone centered along flight direction.

Concepts: Dimension, Sequence, Animal echolocation, Bat, Microbat, Common Pipistrelle, Pipistrellus, Soprano Pipistrelle


Laryngeally echolocating bats avoid self-deafening (forward masking) by separating pulse and echo either in time using low duty cycle (LDC) echolocation, or in frequency using high duty cycle (HDC) echolocation. HDC echolocators are specialized to detect fluttering targets in cluttered environments. HDC echolocation is found only in the families Rhinolophidae and Hipposideridae in the Old World and in the New World mormoopid, Pteronotus parnellii. Here we report that the hipposiderid Coelops frithii, ostensibly an HDC bat, consistently uses an LDC echolocation strategy whether roosting, flying, or approaching a fluttering target rotating at 50 to 80 Hz. We recorded the echolocation calls of free-flying C. frithii in the field in various situations, including presenting bats with a mechanical fluttering target. The echolocation calls of C. frithii consisted of an initial narrowband component (0.5±0.3 ms, 90.6±2.0 kHz) followed immediately by a frequency modulated (FM) sweep (194 to 113 kHz). This species emitted echolocation calls at duty cycles averaging 7.7±2.8% (n = 87 sequences). Coelops frithii approached fluttering targets more frequently than did LDC bats (C.frithii, approach frequency  = 40.4%, n = 80; Myotis spp., approach frequency  = 0%, n = 13), and at the same frequency as sympatrically feeding HDC species (Hipposideros armiger, approach rate  = 53.3%, n = 15; Rhinolophus monoceros, approach rate  = 56.7%, n = 97). We propose that the LDC echolocation strategy used by C. frithii is derived from HDC ancestors, that this species adjusts the harmonic contents of its echolocation calls, and that it may use both the narrowband component and the FM sweep of echolocations calls to detect fluttering targets.

Concepts: Instrument approach, Ultrasound, Frequency, Hertz, Animal echolocation, Bat, Microbat, Horseshoe bat


Toothed whales and bats have independently evolved biosonar systems to navigate and locate and catch prey. Such active sensing allows them to operate in darkness, but with the potential cost of warning prey by the emission of intense ultrasonic signals. At least six orders of nocturnal insects have independently evolved ears sensitive to ultrasound and exhibit evasive maneuvers when exposed to bat calls. Among aquatic prey on the other hand, the ability to detect and avoid ultrasound emitting predators seems to be limited to only one subfamily of Clupeidae: the Alosinae (shad and menhaden). These differences are likely rooted in the different physical properties of air and water where cuticular mechanoreceptors have been adapted to serve as ultrasound sensitive ears, whereas ultrasound detection in water have called for sensory cells mechanically connected to highly specialized gas volumes that can oscillate at high frequencies. In addition, there are most likely differences in the risk of predation between insects and fish from echolocating predators. The selection pressure among insects for evolving ultrasound sensitive ears is high, because essentially all nocturnal predation on flying insects stems from echolocating bats. In the interaction between toothed whales and their prey the selection pressure seems weaker, because toothed whales are by no means the only marine predators placing a selection pressure on their prey to evolve specific means to detect and avoid them. Toothed whales can generate extremely intense sound pressure levels, and it has been suggested that they may use these to debilitate prey. Recent experiments, however, show that neither fish with swim bladders, nor squid are debilitated by such signals. This strongly suggests that the production of high amplitude ultrasonic clicks serve the function of improving the detection range of the toothed whale biosonar system rather than debilitation of prey.

Concepts: Evolution, Insect, Predation, Lotka–Volterra equation, Ultrasound, Animal echolocation, Sound, Bat


How bats adapt their sonar behavior to accommodate the noisiness of a crowded day roost is a mystery. Some bats change their pulse acoustics to enhance the distinction between theirs and another bat’s echoes, but additional mechanisms are needed to explain the bat sonar system’s exceptional resilience to jamming by conspecifics. Variable pulse repetition rate strategies offer one potential solution to this dynamic problem, but precisely how changes in pulse rate could improve sonar performance in social settings is unclear. Here we show that bats decrease their emission rates as population density increases, following a pattern that reflects a cumulative mutual suppression of each other’s pulse emissions. Playback of artificially-generated echolocation pulses similarly slowed emission rates, demonstrating that suppression was mediated by hearing the pulses of other bats. Slower emission rates did not support an antiphonal emission strategy but did reduce the relative proportion of emitted pulses that overlapped with another bat’s emissions, reducing the relative rate of mutual interference. The prevalence of acoustic interferences occurring amongst bats was empirically determined to be a linear function of population density and mean emission rates. Consequently as group size increased, small reductions in emission rates spread across the group partially mitigated the increase in interference rate. Drawing on lessons learned from communications networking theory we show how modest decreases in pulse emission rates can significantly increase the net information throughput of the shared acoustic space, thereby improving sonar efficiency for all individuals in a group. We propose that an automated acoustic suppression of pulse emissions triggered by bats hearing each other’s emissions dynamically optimizes sonar efficiency for the entire group.

Concepts: Function, Pulse, Population density, Ultrasound, Animal echolocation, Sound, Bat, Sonar


Echolocating bats use the time elapsed from biosonar pulse emission to the arrival of echo (defined as echo-delay) to assess target-distance. Target-distance is represented in the brain by delay-tuned neurons that are classified as either “heteroharmonic” or “homoharmormic.” Heteroharmonic neurons respond more strongly to pulse-echo pairs in which the timing of the pulse is given by the fundamental biosonar harmonic while the timing of echoes is provided by one (or several) of the higher order harmonics. On the other hand, homoharmonic neurons are tuned to the echo delay between similar harmonics in the emitted pulse and echo. It is generally accepted that heteroharmonic computations are advantageous over homoharmonic computations; i.e., heteroharmonic neurons receive information from call and echo in different frequency-bands which helps to avoid jamming between pulse and echo signals. Heteroharmonic neurons have been found in two species of the family Mormoopidae (Pteronotus parnellii and Pteronotus quadridens) and in Rhinolophus rouxi. Recently, it was proposed that heteroharmonic target-range computations are a primitive feature of the genus Pteronotus that was preserved in the evolution of the genus. Here, we review recent findings on the evolution of echolocation in Mormoopidae, and try to link those findings to the evolution of the heteroharmonic computation strategy (HtHCS). We stress the hypothesis that the ability to perform heteroharmonic computations evolved separately from the ability of using long constant-frequency echolocation calls, high duty cycle echolocation, and Doppler Shift Compensation. Also, we present the idea that heteroharmonic computations might have been of advantage for categorizing prey size, hunting eared insects, and living in large conspecific colonies. We make five testable predictions that might help future investigations to clarify the evolution of the heteroharmonic echolocation in Mormoopidae and other families.

Concepts: Evolution, Insect, Acoustics, Animal echolocation, Bat, Sonar, Microbat, Luke Cage


Under natural conditions, animals encounter a barrage of sensory information from which they must select and interpret biologically relevant signals. Active sensing can facilitate this process by engaging motor systems in the sampling of sensory information. The echolocating bat serves as an excellent model to investigate the coupling between action and sensing because it adaptively controls both the acoustic signals used to probe the environment and movements to receive echoes at the auditory periphery. We report here that the echolocating bat controls the features of its sonar vocalizations in tandem with the positioning of the outer ears to maximize acoustic cues for target detection and localization. The bat’s adaptive control of sonar vocalizations and ear positioning occurs on a millisecond timescale to capture spatial information from arriving echoes, as well as on a longer timescale to track target movement. Our results demonstrate that purposeful control over sonar sound production and reception can serve to improve acoustic cues for localization tasks. This finding also highlights the general importance of movement to sensory processing across animal species. Finally, our discoveries point to important parallels between spatial perception by echolocation and vision.

Concepts: Ultrasound, Animal echolocation, Sound, Bat, Sonar, Microbat, Bats, Vesper bat


A northern Gulf of Mexico (GoM) cetacean unusual mortality event (UME) involving primarily bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama began in February 2010 and continued into 2014. Overlapping in time and space with this UME was the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, which was proposed as a contributing cause of adrenal disease, lung disease, and poor health in live dolphins examined during 2011 in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. To assess potential contributing factors and causes of deaths for stranded UME dolphins from June 2010 through December 2012, lung and adrenal gland tissues were histologically evaluated from 46 fresh dead non-perinatal carcasses that stranded in Louisiana (including 22 from Barataria Bay), Mississippi, and Alabama. UME dolphins were tested for evidence of biotoxicosis, morbillivirus infection, and brucellosis. Results were compared to up to 106 fresh dead stranded dolphins from outside the UME area or prior to the DWH spill. UME dolphins were more likely to have primary bacterial pneumonia (22% compared to 2% in non-UME dolphins, P = .003) and thin adrenal cortices (33% compared to 7% in non-UME dolphins, P = .003). In 70% of UME dolphins with primary bacterial pneumonia, the condition either caused or contributed significantly to death. Brucellosis and morbillivirus infections were detected in 7% and 11% of UME dolphins, respectively, and biotoxin levels were low or below the detection limit, indicating that these were not primary causes of the current UME. The rare, life-threatening, and chronic adrenal gland and lung diseases identified in stranded UME dolphins are consistent with exposure to petroleum compounds as seen in other mammals. Exposure of dolphins to elevated petroleum compounds present in coastal GoM waters during and after the DWH oil spill is proposed as a cause of adrenal and lung disease and as a contributor to increased dolphin deaths.

Concepts: Death, Pneumonia, Cetacean intelligence, Animal echolocation, Bottlenose dolphin, Great white shark, Common Bottlenose Dolphin, Gulf of Mexico


Echolocation is the ability to use sound-echoes to infer spatial information about the environment. Some blind people have developed extraordinary proficiency in echolocation using mouth-clicks. The first step of human biosonar is the transmission (mouth click) and subsequent reception of the resultant sound through the ear. Existing head-related transfer function (HRTF) data bases provide descriptions of reception of the resultant sound. For the current report, we collected a large database of click emissions with three blind people expertly trained in echolocation, which allowed us to perform unprecedented analyses. Specifically, the current report provides the first ever description of the spatial distribution (i.e. beam pattern) of human expert echolocation transmissions, as well as spectro-temporal descriptions at a level of detail not available before. Our data show that transmission levels are fairly constant within a 60° cone emanating from the mouth, but levels drop gradually at further angles, more than for speech. In terms of spectro-temporal features, our data show that emissions are consistently very brief (~3ms duration) with peak frequencies 2-4kHz, but with energy also at 10kHz. This differs from previous reports of durations 3-15ms and peak frequencies 2-8kHz, which were based on less detailed measurements. Based on our measurements we propose to model transmissions as sum of monotones modulated by a decaying exponential, with angular attenuation by a modified cardioid. We provide model parameters for each echolocator. These results are a step towards developing computational models of human biosonar. For example, in bats, spatial and spectro-temporal features of emissions have been used to derive and test model based hypotheses about behaviour. The data we present here suggest similar research opportunities within the context of human echolocation. Relatedly, the data are a basis to develop synthetic models of human echolocation that could be virtual (i.e. simulated) or real (i.e. loudspeaker, microphones), and which will help understanding the link between physical principles and human behaviour.

Concepts: Signal processing, Animal echolocation, Sensory substitution, Behavior, Human behavior, Sound, Blindness, Sonar