When most people think of bats, the typical reaction includes a fearful cringe because of the creatures’ reputation to cause chaos in the night skies and go after anything they can suck blood from. When I think of bats, I marvel at how these sophisticated mammals use their intelligence and small size to their advantage to live an assortment of different lifestyles worldwide. Contrary to popular belief, bats do not have intentions to rustle up chaos, and less than one percent feed on blood.
Believe it or not, the things that bats do behind the scenes result in products present in our everyday lives. Thanks to bats that eat half their weight in bugs, you can enjoy chocolate. By acting as a natural pest control, insectivorous bats save the United States’ agricultural industry about $3.7 billion a year. Fruit bats around the world are important too, as they eat fruit and disperse the seeds to produce new fruit trees. Without these flying superheroes around, our world would see a substantial impact on how we access and manage food.
The versatility and diversity of bats are what initially sparked my interest in learning more about them. Navigating the world by sound alone is a complex task. While some bats have great vision, most species have very poor eyesight and rely on acoustic means to orient themselves. Because of this challenge, they have mastered the craft of utilizing sound to sense the environment around them. Most bats have a highly developed ability to emit high-frequency vocal noises as soundwaves reflect off objects and surfaces back to them. They can then use this information to craft an accurate mental picture of their surroundings, generally called echolocation (Simmons and Stein, 1980). I was fascinated by their unique ability to sense the world differently than most other mammals through echolocation, and wanted to dig deeper into how they used that sensory modality to their benefit.
My mentor for this study, Laura Kloepper, a visiting assistant professor in biological sciences at the University of New Hampshire, researches population acoustics of bats and their behavior and other vocal species. With Dr. Kloepper’s support, I performed research in her Ecological Acoustics and Behavior lab at UNH, investigating how bats utilize their best asset, echolocation, to their advantage when traveling in large numbers to avoid colliding with those nearby.
It is crucial that we learn everything we can about bats to prepare them for a better future, as anthropogenic developments continue to encroach on their natural environments. By understanding more about how bats interact and navigate the world, we can instill effective conservation tactics that set bats up for success and allow for their auditory necessities to be conserved.