Echolocation is the process of using sound to identify your surroundings. Humans have learned this ability through technologies such as sonar, which uses sound waves to locate underwater objects and other similar applications. There are a number of animals that use echolocation for hunting, and some even use it as their primary means of exploring their surroundings. In this article, we’ll introduce you to nine amazing animals that use echolocation.
# 9 Bats
When it comes to animals with echolocation, our first animal is often thought of. Bats are the mammals that everyone thinks of when they first talk about echolocation, but did you know that not all bat species use this type of adaptation? Primarily, bats from the suborder Microchiroptera use echolocation as a means of hunting, but there are some species of Megachiroptera that use it for navigation. Because of this discrepancy in evolution, it is a source of controversy among researchers as to when bats first developed the ability to use echolocation.
Bats emit loud chirps that bounce off objects around them, and their brains have adapted to recognize their own sound and process the data to locate prey and obstacles to avoid. This is probably an adaptation that arose due to the poor eyesight of their ancestors; however, bats with excellent eyesight still rely on echolocation to hunt. Bat Bulldog (Noctilio leporinus) was recorded using clicks exceeding 140 decibels, and some bats may disconnect parts of their ear to protect their hearing when these noises are first issued.
# 8 Dolphins
Dolphins are probably the second most famous animals for echolocation. Their shrill twittering calls serve not only for simple communication, but for another purpose as well. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and other sea dolphins use different vocalizations for different purposes. Mothers even spend a whole week repeating the same whistle to their newborns to capture the sound on them.
These types of sounds have been recorded and carefully studied by scientists. Chatting and whistling are used at a lower frequency and are used for social communication and even to identify individual animals. High-frequency clicks are used for echolocation, and dolphins can emit clicks and whistles at the same time.
# 7 Whales
Whales are another sea creature that uses echolocation. All toothed whales use a series of clicks to echolocate, just like the dolphins we just mentioned. Species such as the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) hunt fish and identify other objects with these high pitched sounds. Researchers have not been able to pinpoint exactly how these cetaceans can protect their hearing by making such loud sounds underwater.
While underwater, whales use the fact that sound travels 4.5 times faster in water to dramatically improve target identification. Research has even shown that dolphins and toothed whales can focus their echolocation like a sonar beam to track fast-moving targets. This shows the ability not only to identify animals using echolocation, but also to select a specific target and track it at different distances.
# 6 Haircuts
Haircuts are small cave birds native to Southeast Asia across all islands in the South Pacific. They can live in flocks of up to one million and are one of two types of birds that use echolocation. Species such as the dwarf swiftlet (Collocalia troglodytes) Use whale and dolphin-like clicks to find your way through the dark caves they made their home.
Swiftlets emit these clicks in an audible range of 1500–5500 Hz, which means humans can hear them as well. With up to six clicks per second, these bird species can pinpoint obstacles and find their way in total darkness. These tiny birds are only 3.5-6 inches long, fly shorter and much more erratic than their swifts.
# 5 Oil birds
Oil birds (Steatornis caripensis) is the only other type of bird that uses echolocation. Native to South America, these nocturnal creatures feed on fruits and live in caves, just like the swiftlet. They use their echolocation talent to navigate the dark places of the caves in which they inhabit. Butterbird got its name from the fact that the indigenous population used to capture and kill young birds due to their extremely thick appearance. They then turned the animals into oil, which was used for cooking and lighting.
These birds also congregate in large flocks of several thousand, and are known to travel up to 150 miles in one night to obtain food for themselves. Oil birds eat whole avocados and palms, and they help spread these fruit trees throughout their vast territory by distributing seeds in their excrement. While these birds use clicks to echolocate like other members of our list, they also have a unique call similar to human crying. The sound of this call brought them the Spanish name guácharo, which means “one who complains.”
# 4 Shrews
Some species of shrews are the first terrestrial record on our list of echolocating animals. Common shrew (Sorex araneus), short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda), and a wandering shrew (Wagran Sorex) – three species that are known to have echolocation. Unlike other animals, shrews use a series of squeaks, rather than clicks, to sense any obstacles underground.
Shrews are one of the smallest mammals, and they are also one of the few venomous mammals. Despite their appearance, they are not rodents at all and are more closely related to moles. It is likely that the shrews evolved their echolocation to compensate for their extremely small and weak eyes and the dark environment they call home.
# 3 Sonya
Unlike shrews, dormouse are actually the rodents they appear to be, and the Chinese pygmy dormouse (Typhlomis sinereus) also uses a high pitched squeak for echolocation. What makes this even more impressive is that this dormouse is arboreal and practically blind. The Chinese pygmy dormouse, described as lightning dormouse, can easily move through the branches of trees, although their eyes are so poor that they can only distinguish between light and darkness.
The dormouse is also the first animal we mentioned whose echolocation noises usually cannot be detected by humans. The squeaks are so quiet that they are not even recognized by specialized sensors that register the echolocation clicks of bats. Scientists suggest that sleepyheads do not need to use loud sounds, since the objects they are trying to detect are much closer than those of bats.
# 2 tenreki
Tenrecs are mammals that live only on the island of Madagascar. There are over 30 species of tenrecs that are descended from what is believed to be one common ancestor. Tenrecs are closest to shrews and moles. Some are small and weigh only a few ounces, while the largest are over 2 pounds.
In the 1960s, researchers collected detailed recordings of several types of tenrecs, using types of clicking sounds to find objects in complete darkness. Most individuals used their tongue and lips to create soft clicking sounds. A notable finding in this study was that tenrecs, which were grown in an isolated laboratory, still used echolocation clicks to probe their cell boundaries.
# 1 i-ayes
Yes-ay (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is another indigenous species of Madagascar and the only known primate that uses any form of echolocation. They are also unique in that they are the only primates to have consistently growing incisors, like rodents. These mammals don’t actually make any sounds used for echolocation, but they use their extremely long, thin middle finger to knock on logs and branches, where they then listen to the echoes of the hollow tunnels used by insects and larvae.
Ayes is a species of lemur, and their striking appearance has been described as a cross between a monkey and a bat. Local indigenous people believe that this is an omen of bad luck and kill them right away. This superstition, coupled with the loss of habitat, turned the Aye-Ata into an endangered species.
On land, in the sea and in the sky, all kinds of creatures have developed virtual superpowers of echolocation. Surprisingly, humans have even demonstrated this ability; blind people were studied using echoes to avoid obstacles in an unfamiliar environment. As our ability to explore the world around us continues to improve, it’s only a matter of time before we find additional animals that have adapted in the same amazing way.
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