A new study from Tel Aviv University reveals for the first time how mother bats teach their pups to navigate. According to the TAU study, the 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 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 study was led by Prof. Yossi Yovel, Head of the Sagol School of Neuroscience, senior researcher at the School of Zoology at TAU’s George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, and 2021 recipient of the Kadar Family Award. Dr. Aya Goldshtein and Dr. Lee Harten from Prof. Yovel’s laboratory also took part in the study. The paper was published in the Current Biology journal.
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. Yovel explains: “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 an essential aspect of 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 kilometers – 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.”
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Prof. Yovel concludes, “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. It is important to note that the process whereby the young learn from their parents can save evolution millions of years. Human children rely extensively on this type of learning, and the present study shows that animals do the same.”