Technology mimics nature all the time, though usually intentionally. Scientists were surprised when they recently learned that bats jam each other’s sonar when they compete for food. No, it’s not some NSA hijinks or animal cyborg project — it’s actually a skill bats have adapted over time, and it’s pretty impressive.
As you probably know, bats use sonar, or echolocation, to maneuver in their pitch-black caves and to catch prey in total darkness. In fact, they also use sonar to distinguish between surfaces, such as water.
When bats hunt, they make a noise that vibrates the air, forming a sound wave that travels to a wall or a pool of water or the body of a moth. Once the sound wave hits the object, it deflects and moves in the opposite direction. The time it takes to come back lets the bat figure out where the object is, and often what it is. They can do this all incredibly quickly, not unlike the fruit flies that perform calculus to adjust their flight patterns.
But, as with the man who got fed up with all the texting idiots on the road, all communication can be blocked somehow. And it turns out bats don’t even need special equipment to do it. Researchers from Wake Forest University and the University of Maryland published a study in Science of their findings about the Mexican free-tailed bat’s use of echolocation. Turns out, bats have evolved to learn how to jam each other’s sonar when competing for food. This knocks the hunter bat off track enough that the other bat can swoop in and steal the tasty treat — that bat has heard everything, including the sped-up signals issued when a bat closes in on its prey.
The scientists obtained footage of bats emitting “sinusoidal frequency-modulated ultrasonic signals” — it sounds like a consistent yodel — that screwed up their fellow bats’ echolocation. And when the scientists recorded and played back those jamming signals, the bats in the study were thrown off course and missed their targets.
It may seem dastardly, but this particular bat lives in ultra-crowded colonies of millions, and they don’t want their neighbors to get all the food. That’s their jam.