Tongue-driven sonar beam steering by a lingual-echolocating fruit bat
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Animals enhance sensory acquisition from a specific direction by movements of head, ears, or eyes. As active sensing animals, echolocating bats also aim their directional sonar beam to selectively “illuminate” a confined volume of space, facilitating efficient information processing by reducing echo interference and clutter. Such sonar beam control is generally achieved by head movements or shape changes of the sound-emitting mouth or nose. However, lingual-echolocating Egyptian fruit bats, Rousettus aegyptiacus, which produce sound by clicking their tongue, can dramatically change beam direction at very short temporal intervals without visible morphological changes. The mechanism supporting this capability has remained a mystery. Here, we measured signals from free-flying Egyptian fruit bats and discovered a systematic angular sweep of beam focus across increasing frequency. This unusual signal structure has not been observed in other animals and cannot be explained by the conventional and widely-used “piston model” that describes the emission pattern of other bat species. Through modeling, we show that the observed beam features can be captured by an array of tongue-driven sound sources located along the side of the mouth, and that the sonar beam direction can be steered parsimoniously by inducing changes to the pattern of phase differences through moving tongue location. The effects are broadly similar to those found in a phased array—an engineering design widely found in human-made sonar systems that enables beam direction changes without changes in the physical transducer assembly. Our study reveals an intriguing parallel between biology and human engineering in solving problems in fundamentally similar ways.
Lee, Wu-Jung; Falk, Benjamin; Chiu, Chen; Krishnan, Anand; Arbour, Jessica H.; and Moss, Cynthia F., "Tongue-driven sonar beam steering by a lingual-echolocating fruit bat" (2017). KIP Articles. 5379.