Evolution of high duty cycle echolocation in bats


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Publication Date

January 2012


Duty cycle describes the relative ‘on time’ of a periodic signal. In bats, we argue that high duty cycle (HDC) echolocation was selected for and evolved from low duty cycle (LDC) echolocation because increasing call duty cycle enhanced the ability of echolocating bats to detect, lock onto and track fluttering insects. Most echolocators (most bats and all birds and odontocete cetaceans) use LDC echolocation, separating pulse and echo in time to avoid forward masking. They emit short duration, broadband, downward frequency modulated (FM) signals separated by relatively long periods of silence. In contrast, bats using HDC echolocation emit long duration, narrowband calls dominated by a single constant frequency (CF) separated by relatively short periods of silence. HDC bats separate pulse and echo in frequency by exploiting information contained in Doppler-shifted echoes arising from their movements relative to background objects and their prey. HDC echolocators are particularly sensitive to amplitude and frequency glints generated by the wings of fluttering insects. We hypothesize that narrowband/CF calls produced at high duty cycle, and combined with neurobiological specializations for processing Doppler-shifted echoes, were essential to the evolution of HDC echolocation because they allowed bats to detect, lock onto and track fluttering targets. This advantage was especially important in habitats with dense vegetation that produce overlapping, time-smeared echoes (i.e. background acoustic clutter). We make four specific, testable predictions arising from this hypothesis.


Evolution, High Duty Cycle, Echolocation, Bats

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Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol. 215 (2012).