While attempting to unravel the mystery of biological sonar, or “echolocation,” one scientist has pitted the amazing adaptation’s most famous practitioners against one another. While bats or dolphins are hunting, they are constantly emitting high or low-frequency calls and clicks. These clicks bounce off of things like obstacles or prey animals and return the information back to the animal.
Two’s company, three million’s a crowd
One of the most mysterious aspects of echolocating animals is how they are able to distinguish their calls from those made by others among them. The scientist, Laura Kloepper, leans heavily toward “Team Bat,” since dolphin hunting pods can reach ten to thirty animals, and bats have to find their way around millions of individuals and their calls.
Using a speaker system lowered into the water, Kloepper’s research team bombarded some dolphins with artificial clicks and found that when dolphins detect interference in their sonar, they change the tempo or pitch of their calls in order to “just make sure”. This gives each dolphin its own unique voice.
Bats strike back
Releasing a trained hawk equipped with a microphone into a swarm of bats, Kloepper gathered some fascinating data on how so many bats fly blind on sonar without crashing into each other. The dolphin’s click is about a 20th of a duration of a bat’s call, allowing them to make far more layered and subtle tweaks – sharpening the sound to the perfect individual level.
Imagine the difference between a two-minute punk-rock song and “Stairway to Heaven”, and you can begin to understand the differences between the two sounds; one is far more complex and recognizable.
Echolocation is a technology many are interested in installing on machines like self-driving cars, and while sonar has been in use in the navy for many years, there aren’t millions of submarines milling about beneath the waves.
Us land-dwellers have to cope with thousands of other motor vehicles on the road, and if we want our cars to drive themselves, bat technology seems the most likely to help them do it.