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Bats and the Brain

Most behavioral studies in neuroscience are performed in controlled, unnatural laboratory conditions, with neuroscientists trying to understand how behavior is encoded and controlled by the brain. Ecologists, on the other hand, tend to go to natural habitats, trying to understand how the environment shapes behavior, but more-often-than-not using simple quantitative approaches rather than the sophisticated research apparatus available in the lab.

Dr. Yossi Yovel is working to bridge the gap. He calls it NeuroEcology. And he believes there is no better way to do it than with bats.

Bats are among the earth's most successful mammals, accounting for more than 20% of all mammalian species. Their success hinges on a number of things, not least of which is their ability to emit ultrasonic sound signals that allow them to "see" in the dark and analyze the echoes of their various and varied environments to generate an image of the world in their brain.

Learning what's in those tiny magical brains has become Dr. Yovel's life work.

His first step was to develop a miniature GPS+microphone device that allows his team to record bat sounds and travel patterns from great distances and to use that information to literally tap into the sensory perception of the bat world.

Next up, house the world's first imprinted bat colony, where his bats can roost in the lab's artificial cave but also are free to forage in the wild.

Dr. Yovel chose the fruit bat. They are social mammals that can live up to 40 years and roost in colonies that number in the thousands.

An in-house Acoustic Flight Room is equipped with 50 ultrasonic microphones and 16 high-speed Infrared video cameras that allow the team to study bat movement and biosonar with great precision. They are looking at how bats use their antennae to shape the form of their emitted beam, how their ear movements help them localize different objects with biosonar, and how bats integrate visual and auditory sensory information into a single representation of the world.

The team is also using an on-board EEG and fMRI to complete the fieldwork. The team measures brain activity of awake bats that have been placed in an MRI machine. Each bat listens to playback acoustic echoes of the world and various aggressive vs. appeasing vocalizations of other bats to better understand the colony's social environment.

Fifty million years of evolution provided bats with sonar systems and their brains with analysis algorithms that are far more sophisticated than anything modern engineers can build today. One such algorithm allows thousands of bats to fly together without interfering with each other's sonar — a task that is extremely difficult for artificial machines. The NeuroEcology Lab is working with TAU Engineering faculty to help translate this technology to humankind.

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