Convergent acoustic field of view in echolocating bats

Lasse Jakobsen, John M Ratcliffe, Annemarie Surlykke

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Most echolocating bats exhibit a strong correlation between body size and the frequency of maximum energy in their echolocation calls (peak frequency), with smaller species using signals of higher frequency than larger ones. Size-signal allometry or acoustic detection constraints imposed on wavelength by preferred prey size have been used to explain this relationship. Here we propose the hypothesis that smaller bats emit higher frequencies to achieve directional sonar beams, and that variable beam width is critical for bats. Shorter wavelengths relative to the size of the emitter translate into more directional sound beams. Therefore, bats that emit their calls through their mouths should show a relationship between mouth size and wavelength, driving smaller bats to signals of higher frequency. We found that in a flight room mimicking a closed habitat, six aerial hawking vespertilionid species (ranging in size from 4 to 21 g, ref. 5) produced sonar beams of extraordinarily similar shape and volume. Each species had a directivity index of 11 ± 1 dB (a half-amplitude angle of approximately 37°) and an on-axis sound level of 108 ± 4 dB sound pressure level referenced to 20 μPa root mean square at 10 cm. Thus all bats adapted their calls to achieve similar acoustic fields of view. We propose that the necessity for high directionality has been a key constraint on the evolution of echolocation, which explains the relationship between bat size and echolocation call frequency. Our results suggest that echolocation is a dynamic system that allows different species, regardless of their body size, to converge on optimal fields of view in response to habitat and task.
Original languageEnglish
Issue number7430
Pages (from-to)93-96
Number of pages4
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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