TAU finds that bats navigate in the same manner as humans, using landmarks

What they found is that bats, like humans, build a visual cognitive map of their surroundings, using landmarks as navigational points.

TAU finds that bats navigate in the same manner as humans, using landmarks (photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
TAU finds that bats navigate in the same manner as humans, using landmarks
(photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
Researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem studied the life of fruit bats from birth to maturity, so that they might understand how the flying Chiroptera navigate long distances.
What they found is that bats, like humans, build a visual cognitive map of their surroundings, using landmarks as navigational points.
Their findings were published as the cover story for Science Magazine. The study was conducted by Prof. Yossi Yovel – together with students Amitai Katz, Lee Harten, Aya Goldstein and Michal Handel from the Sensory Perception and Cognition Laboratory at the Department of Zoology – alongside Prof. Ran Nathan of Hebrew University’s Movement Ecology Lab – as well as doctoral candidate David Shohami and other members of Nathan's team.
TAU finds that bats navigate in the same manner as humans, using landmarks. (Tel Aviv University)TAU finds that bats navigate in the same manner as humans, using landmarks. (Tel Aviv University)
Many of the young bats who grew up in Tel Aviv are used to large structures such as the Dizengoff Center, the Azrieli towers and the plethora of skyscrapers stretched across the city. Considering bats rely heavily on sonar for vision, and said sonar doesn't work at longer distances, making use of these landmarks has been found to be key for the mammal making these extended journeys.
"How animals are able to navigate over long distances is an ancient riddle," Yovel explained. "Bats are considered world champions of navigation: they fly dozens of kilometers in just a few hours, and then come back to the starting point. For this study we used tiny GPS devices – the smallest in the world, developed by our team, in an experiment never attempted before: tracking bat pups from the moment they spread their wings until they reach maturity, in order to understand how their navigation capabilities develop. No such study has ever been conducted on any living creature, and the findings are very interesting."
“Up to now the technologies we had could not be used to track small wild animals in their natural habitats with enough detail required to test the existence of a cognitive map,” Nathan explained.
For the study, the researched used 22 fruit bats born in a colony at TAU. They tracked their movements across the White City as they searched the concrete jungle for food. From their sample they came to the conclusion that bats navigate in a similar fashion to humans, using said landmarks as navigational indicators.
"Bats use their sonar to navigate over short distances – near a tree, for example," Yovel said. "The sonar doesn't work for greater distances. For this, fruit-bats use their vision. Altogether we mapped about 2,000 bat flight-nights in Tel Aviv. We found that bats construct a mental map: They learn to identify and use salient visual landmarks such as the Azrieli Towers, the Reading Power Station and other distinct features that serve as visual indicators."
"The most distinct proof of this map lies in their ability to perform shortcuts. Like humans, bats at some stages get from one point to another via direct new routes not previously taken. Since we knew the flight history of each bat since infancy, we could always tell when a specific bat took a certain shortcut for the first time. We discovered that when taking new, unknown routes the bats flew above the buildings. Sending up drones to the altitude and location where a bat had been observed, we found that the city's towers were clearly visible from this high angle. Here is another amazing example of how animals make use of manmade features," he concluded.


Tags animals bats