Echolocating bats have evolved an active sensing system, which supports 3D perception of objects in the surroundings and permits spatial navigation in complete darkness. Echolocating animals produce high frequency sounds and use the arrival time, intensity, and frequency content of echo returns to determine the distance, direction, and features of objects in the environment. Over 1,000 species of bats echolocate with signals produced in their larynges. They use diverse sonar signal designs, operate in habitats ranging from tropical rain forest to desert, and forage for different foods, including insects, fruit, nectar, small vertebrates, and even blood. Specializations of the mammalian auditory system, coupled with high frequency hearing, enable spatial imaging by echolocation in bats. Specifically, populations of neurons in the bat central nervous system respond selectively to the direction and delay of sonar echoes. In addition, premotor neurons in the bat brain are implicated in the production of sonar calls, along with movement of the head and ears. Audio-motor circuits, within and across brain regions, lay the neural foundation for acoustic orientation by echolocation in bats.
Cynthia F. Moss
Paul E. Nachtigall
Toothed whales and dolphins, odontocete cetaceans, produce very loud biosonar sounds in order to navigate and to locate and catch their prey of fish and squid. Underwater biosonar was not discovered until after 1950, but the initial experiments demonstrated a unique sensory modality that could find small targets far away and distinguish between objects buried in mud that differed only by the metal from which they were made. Dolphins determine the distance to their prey by evaluating very small time differences between the outgoing signal and the echo return. The type of outgoing signal varies greatly from low frequency, explosively loud sperm whale clicks, to frequency modulated mid-frequency beaked whale sounds, to very high frequency (over 100 kHz) harbor porpoise signals. All appear to be made by specialized pneumatic phonic lips closely connected to sound projecting fatty melons that focus sound before sending out narrow echolocation sound beams. The frequency of most hearing is matched to echolocation, with the areas of best hearing of the animals being the areas of principal outgoing signal frequency. The sensation levels of hearing are under the animal’s control with “automatic gain control” operating to assure the best hearing of the echo returns. Angular localization of the bottlenose dolphins, for discriminating the minimum audible angles of clicks, is less than one degree in both the horizontal and vertical directions. This remarkable localization performance has yet to be fully explained, but new hypotheses of gular pathways, shaded receiver models, and internal pinnae may provide some explanations as a theory of auditory localization in the odontocetes develops.