Research Reveals Bats Can See Into the Future

They can't tell who's going to win the next FIFA World Cup but they're still impressive.
Utku Kucukduner

We're pretty sure you won't be seeing bats open up fortune-teller shops anytime soon but researchers found that they are quite adept at one specific aspect of seeing the future: finding where their meals are.

Bats have an ability to calculate where their prey is going towards building spontaneous predictive models for the said prey's probable location from echoes. This modeling is so solid that bats can keep track of a prey's location even if it becomes veiled behind interfering obstacles (such as trees).

Predictive modeling of object motion in animals is a thoroughly studied field, but findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences are the first to study this phenomenon over the sense of hearing. Their work is useful for improving our understanding of auditory guided behavior in animals and humans. That includes vision-impaired people who rely on audio cues to track objects in their surroundings.


Cynthia F. Moss, the senior author of the study and a neuroscientist and professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences explained to Phys "Just the way a tennis player needs to find out when and where they will hit the ball, a bat needs to anticipate when and where it will make contact with the insect it's hunting,"

"The insect is flying. The bat is also flying. In this very rapidly changing environment, if the bat were to just rely on the information it got from the most recent echo, it would miss the insect."

How bats do it

Bats watch for delays in their echolocation calls to determine how far a prey is. Then they tilt their head and ears to derive more information. The researchers thought there should be more to their hunting routine given how successful they are. So they devised a test environment to mimic their hunting environment in the wild.

Co-first author Clarice Anna Diebold explained that they devised mathematical models to test their data and came up with hypotheses for possible actions of bats. So, if a bat weren't predicting the route they would be lagging behind with their head movements but no, that was not the case.

Another co-first author Angeles Salles told "We hypothesized that bats use both the velocity information from the timing of the echoes and further adjust their head aim. When we tested this model with our data, we saw it fit very well."

Previous findings disproven

There was a study in the '80s—when we didn't have high-speed cameras—that ruled bats do not predict an insect's future position, new findings disproved this.

Salles noted "The question of prediction is important because an animal must plan ahead to decide what it's going to do next," and explained that it's remarkable that bats could do such thing with mere acoustic snapshots.

While the study focuses on bats, these findings also apply to other animals and vision-impaired humans using clicks and cane taps too. 

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