Genetic Similarities Uncovered between Species That Use Echolocation

Scientists compared different species that all use echolocation to catch their prey.
Chris Young

Insect-eating bats, dolphins, and killer whales all use echolocation to navigate their surroundings.

A Stanford study has compared the way different species evolved the incredible ability, which allows them to use biological sonar to hunt for prey.

It strongly suggests that this ability arose in different species due to independently acquired, yet identical, genetic changes.

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Echolocation links

Echolocation is possible due to specific changes in a set of 18 genes that are linked to the development of the cochlear ganglion, the Stanford University paper says.

'Cochlear ganglion' is a group of nerves that transmits sound from the ear to the brain.

Interestingly, different species that use echolocation to capture their prey contain an identical gene mutation. This means that killer whales, for example, share a greater similarity in this gene with bats, than they do with humpback whales or other similar mammals.

"Not only is it breathtaking to see how these very different species carved their own evolutionary niches for themselves through independently acquiring similar genetic changes, it's beneficial to our understanding of our own physiology and development," said Gill Bejerano, Ph.D., professor of developmental biology at Stanford and lead author of the study, via a press release.

The evolution of echolocation

In order to analyze the evolution of echolocation, the scientists compared similar animal species. However, one could echolocate, and the other couldn't. In this case, they compared the genetic sequences of echolocating bats with those of megabats that don't have the ability to echolocate.

The cochlear ganglion gene set was largely shown to be associated with the animals that could use echolocation.

"Developmental biologists have long wondered whether, at the most basic level, something that's the same on the outside—like species that use echolocation—are the same on the inside," Bejerano continued.

"That is, do they acquire these traits through similar molecular changes? Now we know that not only is this true at least some of the times but also that many of these changes occur in the coding region of the genome. It's fascinating."

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