The Secret of Bat Flight Revealed

Scientists figure out why the animals are such great flyers, and that could lead better planes for people.
Apr 30, 2015·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

When it comes to bats, Bram Stoker has a lot to answer for. Since 1897, when Stoker’s novel Dracula introduced the world to the vampire nobleman with a creepy bat-shaped alter ego, popular culture has demonized the flying mammal.

The truth is that while vampire bats do exist in some tropical areas of the world, most bat species feed not on blood but on insects and nectar, a diet that makes them important to human well-being in two ways.

Bats are vital pollinators, spreading pollen as they fly from flower to flower to sip nectar and munch on insects. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arizona saguaro cactus depend on bats for pollination. So do the state’s agave plants—which means that without bats, there would probably be a good deal less tequila in the world.

Bats are also formidable natural pest controllers. The little brown bat, a common species in the United States, consumes about 6,000 mosquitos, gnats, winged ants, mayflies, and other insects every night.

Bats can make split-second, midair speed and direction shifts because touch sensors on their wings send airflow information to the brain's sensory neurons, shown here in close-up. (Photo: Kara Marshall/Columbia University)

Bats can catch insects on the wing (not to mention with their wings, since bat wings are multifunctional), thanks to the combination of their natural echolocation ability and remarkably agile flying. Bats can change altitude and direction several times a second.

Now scientists have discovered why bats have such great flight control: Their wings possess a unique sense of touch.

According to a newly published study in the journal Cell Reports, bat wings have special receptor cells that pick up even small changes in airflow and transmit the information to the bat’s brain so quickly that the animal can make adjustments to its altitude and direction faster than an eye can blink.

The researchers, from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, and the University of Maryland, found that these special airflow sense cells may have developed thanks to the evolutionary pressures unique to a mammal capable of true flight. Gliding squirrels, for instance, cannot move through the air with the agility of a bat.

Understanding the bat’s particular approach to agile flight could lead to technologies that improve the maneuverability of aircraft, the researchers suggested.

Many North American bat colonies have been under siege for years from a disease called white-nose syndrome, which has caused major population drops in in some areas. The CBC reported last week that Canada, Mexico, and the United States recently signed an agreement to collaborate on protecting and conserving the warm-blooded flyers—and their valuable pollination and pest-curbing services.