On the 14th of April, my first bat paper came online in the journal Scientific Reports. In this paper, led by the talented Theresa Schabacker, we studied how bats explore novel roost-like environments using a newly developed maze-type testing arena. We here show that individuals differ in how they use echolocation to explore, with some bats consistently under-sampling a novel environment while others over sample.
Through exploration animals gain vital information about the availability of resources, the distribution of conspecifics, and the presence of predators. It also helps them to pick up changes in the environment quicker. Studies on how animals explore novel environments are usually conducted by measuring spatial movements. Yet, when exploring, not only where an animal goes is relevant, but also, or even especially, the information it acquires. Birds get new information primarily by using vision, which is challenging to measure. Bats, on the other hand, primarily use echolocation, which we can measure!
We developed a maze-like test arena in which tree-roosting bats could explore small chambers that were connected through ports. This arena is designed so it can easily be brought to the field, in this case the Pape Ornithological Station in Latvia, and so the bats do not need to be transported away from their habitat. Using a night-vision camera and a sensitive microphone we recorded the spatial and acoustic behavior of migratory Nathusius’ pipistrelles (Pipistrellus nathusii) for two minutes after they voluntarily entered the maze (some never entered). We did this twice for over 50 individual bats and discovered that not only the echolocation behavior and the number of chambers they visited was strongly correlated (more chambers meant more echo calls), individuals also consistently differed in how many calls they made per chamber. Some were just more thorough in sampling these new chambers than others. This sampling behavior was also correlated to another seemingly explorative behavior: the number of times they took peeks (but did not enter) other chambers.
These bats remind me of how people differ when going through a museum. Some go and look at every painting in a room while others are satisfied with just a few highlights. Bats are not so different as it turns out. Of course, this raises tons of new questions, like: do more thorough exploring bats indeed detect changes in their environment sooner? Does this bring them a fitness-benefit? Or is it actually very costly to echo-locate this much? And does a quickly changing environment select for more thoroughly exploring bats?
Still so much to explore!
Schabacker T, Lindecke O, Rizzi S, Marggraf L, Pētersons G, Voigt CC, Snijders L (2021). In situ novel environment assay reveals acoustic exploration as a repeatable behavioral response in migratory bats. Scientific Reports: Online.