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J Exp Biol. 2009 Apr;212(Pt 7):1011-20. doi: 10.1242/jeb.024620.

Acoustic scanning of natural scenes by echolocation in the big brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus.

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  • 1Institute of Biology, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, DK-5230, Denmark.


Echolocation allows bats to orient and localize prey in complete darkness. The sonar beam of the big brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus, is directional but broad enough to provide audible echo information from within a 60-90 deg. cone. This suggests that the big brown bat could interrogate a natural scene without fixating each important object separately. We tested this idea by measuring the directional aim and duration of the bat's sonar beam as it performed in a dual task, obstacle avoidance and insect capture. Bats were trained to fly through one of two openings in a fine net to take a tethered insect at variable distances behind the net. The bats sequentially scanned the edges of the net opening and the prey by centering the axis of their sonar beam with an accuracy of approximately 5 deg. The bats also shifted the duration of their sonar calls, revealing sequential sampling along the range axis. Changes in duration and directional aim were correlated, showing that the bat first inspected the hole, and then shifted its gaze to the more distant insect, before flying through the net opening. Contrary to expectation based on the sonar beam width, big brown bats encountering a complex environment accurately pointed and shifted their sonar gaze to sequentially inspect closely spaced objects in a manner similar to visual animals using saccades and fixations to scan a scene. The findings presented here from a specialized orientation system, echolocation, offer insights into general principles of active sensing across sensory modalities for the perception of natural scenes.

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