Complexity and a Coupled System: Flight, Echolocation and Evolution in Bats

  • J. M. V. Rayner


Flight places extreme pressures on mechanical and physiological systems capable of supplying energy for flight and structural strength to accommodate aerodynamic and inertial loads. Severe demands of echolocation are manifest mostly in neurology and behaviour. Echolocation with ultrasound is characteristic of microchiropteran bats, being used for orientation, prey detection and target ranging. Microbats are highly aerial animals relying almost entirely on flight for locating food; they represent an important model for studying the evolutionary interaction of echolocation and flight, two coupled adaptive domains.

This chapter reviews coupling between echolocation and flight in bats. The linked optimization of locomotory and sensory performance has been a major feature of the adaptation and radiation of bats.
  1. 1.

    Mechanical Linkage Between Echolocation and Flight. Flying bats omit echolocation calls during the upstroke when the pectoralis generates its peak force and the thorax is compressed. Microbats may not emit sound pulses while gliding.

  2. 2.

    Call Design, Flight Patterns and Community Structure. Bat communities are structured by the flight and echolocation in enabling a bat to move around its habitat and to find and catch prey. Species show a range of feeding patterns, which correlate with morphological adaptations favouring appropriate flight patterns and with echolocation call design.

  3. 3.

    Echolocation and Prey Capture. Bats hawking insects search for prey by echolocation. Prey location involves a decision on viability (catching the item must be mechanically possible and energetically profitable), and then the flight path must be controlled to intersect the prey. Sensory information, motor control and flapping flight force generation must be integrated, and echolocation and flight design must impose constraints on prédation.

  4. 4.

    Evolution of Bats, Flight and Echolocation. Adaptive paradigms should be studied within a phylogenetic framework. Bats are traditionally considered a monophyletic group within the Mammalia but brain, eye-brain pathways and echolocation characters link megabats with primates. Further evidence is provided by the wings, which show significant anatomical and osteological differences, and the fossil record, which in non-echolocating megabats is markedly more recent than microbats. Bats do not form a natural taxonomic group but are diphyle-tic, and the membranous wing supported by elongated digits is homoplasic; megabats are probably a sister group of primates. Differences in size and the absence of echolocation as a primitive character in megabats suggest possible differences in the evolution of flight in the two groups.



Echolocation Call Flight Pattern Behav Ecol Pipistrellus Pipistrellus Flight Morphology 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. M. V. Rayner
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of BristolBristolUK

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