How do bat pups learn to navigate?- Israeli study

In the first study of its kind, TAU researchers reveal how bat pups learn to navigate from their mothers. The researchers attached tiny GPS devices to both pups and mothers to monitor their flight.

Egyptian fruit bats were the subject of a study by Tel Aviv University researchers. (photo credit: YUVAL BARKAI/TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
Egyptian fruit bats were the subject of a study by Tel Aviv University researchers.
(photo credit: YUVAL BARKAI/TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

A novel study from Tel Aviv University sheds light on how mother bats teach their pups to navigate. The study findings concluded that bat pups' navigation is similar to young children learning their way to school and back. The new findings were published in the Current Biology Journal.

According to the research, which attached tiny GPS devices to the bats, a mother bat carries her pup every night from the moment of birth, drops it off at a specific tree, where it stays for several hours until the mother completes her business of gathering food and returns to carry it back to the cave. Through this repetition, the pup learns how to navigate on its own and begins to fly about independently.

Dr. Lee Harten, who took part in the study, explained the research process. 

"We discovered that at first, mothers carry their pups on their bodies all night long," Harten said. "Even when the GPS indicated that mother and pup were at the same location, the accelerometers measuring wing movement proved that the pup was being carried by the mother rather than following her. At the second stage, up to the age of about 10 weeks, the mother carries her pup to a specific tree, located no more than a kilometer from the cave, which serves as a kind of 'nursery'. Here she leaves it, sometimes with a 'friend', and flies on to the food source, later collecting her pup on her way back home.

Gradually the pup starts flying from the 'nursery' to nearby trees, constantly expanding its circles of navigation. We believe that the 'nursery' tree is chosen by the mother as a starting point, an anchor not too far from home, from which the pup can navigate to other places. The tree also serves as a meeting place for mother and pup if the little one happens to get lost."

Tel Aviv University CampusCOURTESY TEL AVIV UNIVERSITYTel Aviv University CampusCOURTESY TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY

The research noted that, unlike human children, the bat pup never follows its mother. 

"At the beginning, carried by its mother, it learns navigation from the 'back seat,' said study leader Prof. Yossi Yovel. "Later on it practices on its own, in growing circles around the familiar 'nursery' tree that serves as an anchor or landmark. It is important to note that the process whereby the young learn from their parents can save evolution millions of years. Human children rely extensively on this type of learning, and the present study shows that animals do the same."