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PLoS Biol. 2006 Apr;4(4):e79. Epub 2006 Mar 7.

Active listening for spatial orientation in a complex auditory scene.

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Department of Psychology, Institute for Systems Research, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, United States of America.


To successfully negotiate a complex environment, an animal must control the timing of motor behaviors in coordination with dynamic sensory information. Here, we report on adaptive temporal control of vocal-motor behavior in an echolocating bat, Eptesicus fuscus, as it captured tethered insects close to background vegetation. Recordings of the bat's sonar vocalizations were synchronized with high-speed video images that were used to reconstruct the bat's three-dimensional flight path and the positions of target and vegetation. When the bat encountered the difficult task of taking insects as close as 10-20 cm from the vegetation, its behavior changed significantly from that under open room conditions. Its success rate decreased by about 50%, its time to initiate interception increased by a factor of ten, and its high repetition rate "terminal buzz" decreased in duration by a factor of three. Under all conditions, the bat produced prominent sonar "strobe groups," clusters of echolocation pulses with stable intervals. In the final stages of insect capture, the bat produced strobe groups at a higher incidence when the insect was positioned near clutter. Strobe groups occurred at all phases of the wingbeat (and inferred respiration) cycle, challenging the hypothesis of strict synchronization between respiration and sound production in echolocating bats. The results of this study provide a clear demonstration of temporal vocal-motor control that directly impacts the signals used for perception.

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