Sensing in a noisy world: lessons from auditory specialists, echolocating bats


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Publication Date

January 2017


All animals face the essential task of extracting biologically meaningful sensory information from the ‘noisy’ backdrop of their environments. Here, we examine mechanisms used by echolocating bats to localize objects, track small prey and communicate in complex and noisy acoustic environments. Bats actively control and coordinate both the emission and reception of sound stimuli through integrated sensory and motor mechanisms that have evolved together over tens of millions of years. We discuss how bats behave in different ecological scenarios, including detecting and discriminating target echoes from background objects, minimizing acoustic interference from competing conspecifics and overcoming insect noise. Bats tackle these problems by deploying a remarkable array of auditory behaviors, sometimes in combination with the use of other senses. Behavioral strategies such as ceasing sonar call production and active jamming of the signals of competitors provide further insight into the capabilities and limitations of echolocation. We relate these findings to the broader topic of how animals extract relevant sensory information in noisy environments. While bats have highly refined abilities for operating under noisy conditions, they face the same challenges encountered by many other species. We propose that the specialized sensory mechanisms identified in bats are likely to occur in analogous systems across the animal kingdom.


Active Sensing, Acoustic Interference, Animal Communication, Jamming, Noise

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Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol. 220 (2017).