Michaela Warnecke, Silvio Macias, Benjamin Falk, and Cynthia F. Moss
To navigate in the natural environment, animals must adapt their locomotion in response to environmental stimuli. The echolocating bat relies on auditory processing of echo returns to represent its surroundings. Recent studies have shown that echo flow patterns influence bat navigation, but the acoustic basis for flight path selection remains unknown. To investigate this problem, we released bats in a flight corridor with walls constructed of adjacent individual wooden poles, which returned cascades of echoes to the flying bat. We manipulated the spacing and echo strength of the poles comprising each corridor side, and predicted that bats would adapt their flight paths to deviate toward the corridor side returning weaker echo cascades. Our results show that the bat’s trajectory through the corridor was not affected by the intensity of echo cascades. Instead, bats deviated toward the corridor wall with more sparsely spaced, highly reflective poles, suggesting that pole spacing, rather than echo intensity, influenced bat flight path selection. This result motivated investigation of the neural processing of echo cascades. We measured local evoked auditory responses in the bat inferior colliculus to echo playback recordings from corridor walls constructed of sparsely and densely spaced poles. We predicted that evoked neural responses would be discretely modulated by temporally distinct echoes recorded from the sparsely spaced pole corridor wall, but not by echoes from the more densely spaced corridor wall. The data confirm this prediction and suggest that the bat’s temporal resolution of echo cascades may drive its flight behavior in the corridor.