Vision complements echolocation in an aerial-hawking bat


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September 2003


The northern bat Eptesicus nilssonii normally hunts flying insects in the air using frequency-modulated echolocation calls. It is also known to detect and catch visually conspicuous prey (white moths) hovering low among grass stalks. To overcome the problem with acoustic clutter from the grass, which interferes with target echo detection, the bats make use of visual cues in addition to those of echolocation. We therefore investigated the minimum size of prey that the bats could distinguish by using vision, by presenting the bats with different sized dead and spread moths. We found that vision increased the chance of detection only when the moths had a wingspan of at least 5 cm. Smaller targets were detected using echolocation alone. The mean detection range was 3.5 m, suggesting that the bats need a visual acuity of 49′ of arc to detect the prey. This is consistent with results of optomotor response tests and counts of retinal ganglion cells in closely related species. Our results suggest that the visual acuity of Eptesicus bats may not be adequate for prey detection under normal conditions, but that the bats can use vision when the prey is unusually large and conspicuous. The northern bats display a flexibility in prey detection techniques not previously recognised among aerial-hawking bats and they are able to use their full visual capacity in the field.


Eptesicus Nilssonii, White Moths, Aerial-Hawking Bat, Visual Cues, Echolocation

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Naturwissenschaften, Vol. 90, no. 10 (2003-09-18).