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Bat Super Sensors Make Them Expert Fliers

May 01, 2015 04:08 PM EDT

Bats are known for their breathtaking precision when it comes to flying and avoiding obstacles, and new research credits their expert flying skills to super sensors found in their wings.

Bats are the only mammals capable of true powered flight, able to reach speeds of 7 to 20 mph with the sort of aerial maneuverability that we wish we could design.

According to a paper published in the journal Cell Reports, the sense of touch plays a key role in powered flight for these mammals. Their highly sensitive touch sensors respond to even slight changes in airflow, and send this information to neurons in the brain. This enables bats to make split-second flight control adjustments.

"Until now no one had investigated the sensors on the bat's wing, which allow it to serve as more than a propeller, a flipper, an airplane wing or any simple airfoil," neuroscientist Cynthia F. Moss, from Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement. "These findings can inform more broadly how organisms use touch to guide movement."

During the study, Moss and her colleagues observed the big brown bat, a common species found throughout North America. The team found that over the course of evolution, bat wings developed in a way that not only enhanced their control during flight, but also allowed bats to use their wings to climb, cradle their young and capture insects.

It turns out that these flying mammals have clusters of sensory receptors at the base of tiny hairs in their wings. So mid-flight, thanks to the location of these touch cells, bats can sense changes in airflow as air ruffles the hairs.

During the study, when the researchers stimulated these hairs with brief air puffs, neurons in the bat's primary somatosensory cortex responded with brief, but precisely timed bursts of activity, suggesting this circuitry helped guide bats during flight.

The team also found that the distribution in and supply of nerves to bat wings is unlike that of other mammalian forelimbs. Surprisingly, neurons in the wing skin connected not only to the higher parts of the spinal cord where forelimbs typically connect, but also to lower parts of the spinal cord that would normally only innervate an animal's trunk.

Evolution made it so that bats can fly with breathtaking precision and avoid crashing into things (although it is hard for them to distinguish between wind turbines and trees). Nonetheless, these findings provide insight into how bats use sensory information to fly with precision in the dark and catch prey midair.

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