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Bats obey traffic rules, study says

New research from the University of Bristol shows that bats follow special ‘traffic rules’ to avoid bumping into each other while hunting.

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    Experts examine a Greater mouse-eared bat in the vault of a German brewery in 2010.
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Motorists take note: you could learn a thing or two about traffic etiquette from the humble bat.

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol has discovered that bats obey certain ‘traffic rules’ when hunting insects. By interpreting sonar calls from other foraging bats, they can make split-second decisions that prevent them from colliding in mid-air. The team’s findings were published Thursday in PLOS Computational Biology.

Computational biology is the intersection of life and technology. By quantifying biological systems and behaviors, we can more deeply understand them, and even apply them in our own lives. But some systems – like the collective movements found in schooling fish and flocking birds – are notoriously difficult to study. Anyone who has attempted to navigate a crowded city street or subway car knows how awkward it can be – and yet many animals do it with an instinctive grace and efficiency.

Echolocating bats present an opportunity to study that phenomenon. Because their movements and communications are based on high-pitched frequencies instead of sight, scientists can intercept and interpret them. Upon studying the hunting behaviors of Daubenton’s bats (Myotis daubentonii) in Somerset, UK, co-author Marc Holderied noticed that they followed certain patterns. When a bat would come within earshot of another echolocating individual, it would turn and copy its flight direction.

“The bats seem to have adopted a simple trick: once another individual is close enough for your biosonar to pick up its echo, copy this individual’s flight direction within four to five of your own wingbeats,” Dr. Holderied said in a statement.

It takes the bats about half a second to interpret the sonar and change direction – almost literally “in the blink of an eye.” The two bats alternate leader-follower roles as they hunt, swooping over bodies of water to catch insects. The system is simple, but it helps prevent mid-air collisions, thus maximizing hunting efficiency. But these little biological tricks aren’t just important for bats – they can be useful in human technology, too.

“Quantifying the movement decisions that bats adopt to forage has implications well beyond animal ecology,” co-author Luca Giuggioli said. “By employing movement strategies that nature has optimized over millions of years engineers may be able to improve the efficiency of search and rescue missions, monitoring tasks, and surveillance operations in the emerging market of flying drones and autonomous moving vehicles.”

And if we’re lucky, bat-based technology could even aid in the development of a self-driving car that can avoid collisions with other cars, a vehicle that could justifiably be named the Batmobile.

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