New Study Tracks How Bat Pups Learn to Navigate

A mother and baby grey-headed Flying fox rest in a tree. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

A new study from Tel Aviv University reveals for the first time how mother bats teach their pups to navigate. According to the study, mother bat carries her pup every night from the moment of birth, drops it off at a specific tree, where it stays for several hours until mom completes her business of gathering food and returns to carry it back to the bat cave. Through this repetition the pup learns how to navigate on its own and begins to fly about independently, gradually expanding its circle of navigation in a relatively familiar area.

The researchers attached tiny GPS devices, as well as accelerometers that measure wing movements, to both mothers and pups, and tracked both simultaneously. In this way they were able to identify several stages in the development of the pups’ navigational abilities.

Prof. Yossi Yovel, head of the Sagol School of Neuroscience, explained: “Many animals must become independent at a very young age in order to survive. For flying animals, the ability to navigate on their own to sources of food is essential for independence. Thus, for example, young fruit bats, which are the focus of this study, are required to navigate every night over long distances —sometimes dozens of miles — to reach a specific tree or group of trees where edible fruit can be found. Even when they succeed, they still face the challenge of finding the way back home to their colony’s cave. In our study we wanted to find out how they learn to do this.”

Prof. Yovel added: “One interesting conclusion from this study is that the bat pup never follows its mother. At the beginning, carried by its mother, it learns navigation from the ‘back seat.” Later on it practices on its own, in growing circles around the familiar ‘nursery’ tree that serves as an anchor or landmark.”