Acoustic mirrors as sensory traps for bats

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Science  08 Sep 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6355, pp. 1045-1047
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam7817

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Building-blind bats

Human-generated structures now dominate much of the planet, but they have existed for but a blink of an eye from an evolutionary perspective. Animal sensory systems evolved to navigate natural environments and so may not always be reliable in anthropogenic ones. Greif et al. show that echolocating bats appear to perceive smooth vertical surfaces as open areas, a mistake that often leads to collisions (see the Perspective by Stilz). With millions upon millions of smooth vertical surfaces in our world today, such misperceptions could have considerable negative impacts on bat survival.

Science, this issue p. 1045; see also p. 977


Sensory traps pose a considerable and often fatal risk for animals, leading them to misinterpret their environment. Bats predominantly rely on their echolocation system to forage, orientate, and navigate. We found that bats can mistake smooth, vertical surfaces as clear flight paths, repeatedly colliding with them, likely as a result of their acoustic mirror properties. The probability of collision is influenced by the number of echolocation calls and by the amount of time spent in front of the surface. The echolocation call analysis corroborates that bats perceive smooth, vertical surfaces as open flyways. Reporting on occurrences with different species in the wild, we argue that it is necessary to more closely monitor potentially dangerous locations with acoustic mirror properties (such as glass fronts) to assess the true frequency of fatalities around these sensory traps.

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