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Bats Use Echo Harmonic Structure to Distinguish Their Targets from Background Clutter

Science  29 Jul 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6042, pp. 627-630
DOI: 10.1126/science.1202065

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Abstract

When echolocating big brown bats fly in complex surroundings, echoes arriving from irrelevant objects (clutter) located to the sides of their sonar beam can mask perception of relevant objects located to the front (targets), causing “blind spots.” Because the second harmonic is beamed more weakly to the sides than the first harmonic, these clutter echoes have a weaker second harmonic. In psychophysical experiments, we found that electronically misaligning first and second harmonics in echoes (to mimic the misalignment of corresponding neural responses to harmonics in clutter echoes) disrupts the bat’s echo-delay perception but also prevents clutter masking. Electronically offsetting harmonics to realign their neural responses restores delay perception but also clutter interference. Thus, bats exploit harmonics to distinguish clutter echoes from target echoes, sacrificing delay acuity to suppress masking.

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