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How flexible are fringe-lipped bats?

September 22, 2014

How flexible are fringe-lipped bats?

When a crescendoing heavy guitar sample joins the rainforest’s nighttime soundscape, Inga Geipel is playing music for a fringelipped bat

When a crescendoing heavy guitar sample joins the rainforest’s nighttime soundscape, Inga Geipel is playing music for a fringelipped bat. Bits of fish lie above a speaker looping the notes from the German metal band, Planks. A sophisticated microphone array captures the bat’s echolocation signals as it homes in on the treat.

In previous days, Geipel trained the bat to associate the music with food while recording its sonar signals in a flight cage. Repeating the experiment when she returns the bat to the forest may reveal flexibility in echolocation, the enigmatic sound-bouncing ability bats use to perceive the world.

“This research is a way of looking into the highly developed sensory system bats have,” said Geipel, who recently finished her Ph.D. at Ulm University. “It is a sensory system we can hardly understand because we are so visual. It’s so difficult for us, as human beings, to understand how you can perceive the world just acoustically.”

The fringe-lipped bat is a favorite model organism of STRI’s bat lab, directed by staff scientist Rachel Page. Trachops cirrhosus figured in breakthrough studies about predator-prey co-evolution and cognitive skills as scientists characterized its ability to learn, remember and respond to human-generated sound cues such as ring tones.

In Geipel’s study, the music gives her experimental assurance that the Trachops that returns to the music in the forest is the same one she trained in captivity. Her questions about the flexibility of echolocation are part of the bat lab’s multimodal sensory research funded by the Human Frontier Science Program, an international supporter of research on complex biological systems.

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