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Freshly Baked Science

As Blind as a Bat

11th October 2018

Have you ever heard of the phrase, ‘the blind leading the blind’? This is a phrase that simply means, someone who knows nothing, trying to get help from someone who also knows nothing… you can see the issue here, right? Well, in some animals, the blind can actually lead the blind and it doesn’t even end in disaster!

 

One example of this is some species of bat. Contrary to popular belief, bats aren’t actually blind, although they are nocturnal. This means that they have to hunt at night, which isn’t especially easy when it’s pitch black! To combat the issue of not being able to see well enough to hunt in the dark, they developed an amazing system called echolocation.

 

Echolocation works by making high-frequency sonic calls, which bounce off objects, allowing the bat to make a sonic map of its surroundings. It is able to tell distance by how long it takes for the sounds to come back to them! The calls that they make are too high pitched for adult humans to hear, as it is out of our hearing range.

 

Other animals that are able to echolocate include; whales, dolphins and cave-dwelling birds… but what about humans?

 

You may be interested to know that it is actually possible for humans to learn to echolocate! It’s more commonly seen in blind people, as they get more use out of the ability than sighted people. It is a skill that has to be learnt and takes a lot of commitment to master. This is because our brains naturally suppress the sound of echoes so that we are able to focus on the original sound and hear it more clearly. If we focused on echoes, other sounds would be muffled and extremely difficult to work out.

 

Human echolocaters tend to press their tongue up against the roof of their mouth and quickly pull it away to create a ticking sound. They use this sound to build up a rough visual representation of the world. According to those who are able to use echolocation, the picture they build up is very vague and the objects they can make out have very little detail and undefined edges. The picture is also limited to short distance, so in a changing environment, sounds must be made constantly in order to keep an up to date picture in their head!

 

Would you like to be able to echolocate? What would you do with this ability? Send us your thoughts via our social media (@wonkscience) or via email (hannah@wonkmagazine.co.uk)!

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