Dr. Yossi Yovel has a fantasy: He wants to know what it’s like to be a bat.
“That’s what I am trying to understand each and every day,” says the young researcher. “One of the things I really want to do is to build a small sonar (Sound Navigation and Ranging) that I can attach to my head, and then close my eyes and move around with it.”
But until that happens, 33-year-old Yovel is busy establishing one of the most advanced labs in the world for the study of bats, in the heart of the Garden for Zoological Research at Tel Aviv University.
He plans on raising a colony of Megabats (fruit bats) to be freed from the lab at night so they can join the other 20,000 flying creatures in Tel Aviv and its surroundings.
The main difference is that his bats will be under direct surveillance. They will have microphones, video cameras and nano-GPS devices attached to them, “the smallest GPS devices that exist,” remarks Yovel with pride.
Yovel, one of the few bat researchers in Israel, emphasizes how far researchers are from understanding these creatures, which number no less than one fifth of all mammals in the world.
He hopes that his lab, which is being built between the ducks, peacocks, gazelles and flamingos of the zoological garden, will answer at least some of the questions that remain about bats.
Bats’ social capabilities are astounding, Yovel says.
They can measure the distance to an object in their close surroundings with the accuracy of 100 microns—the thickness of a hair, more or less.
“We have almost no idea how their brain does that,” he adds.
Yovel mentions that to date, researchers are finding it hard to imitate bats’ transmission abilities. One of the mysteries researchers are trying to solve is the bats’ ability to distinguish between their own transmissions and those of thousands of other bats near them.
There are many things unknown concerning bats’ sonar abilities, but we know even less about their complex social network.
Some of them live in colonies of thousands for up to 40 years. We know very little about these complicated cities. Do bats fly together in specific groups? How do they transfer information from one to another? Do different colonies have different accents?
Yovel will try to shed light on those questions using a device that is not normally part of other bat researchers’ tool-boxes: fMRI.
According to Yovel, apart from one study published in the late 1990s, “We are the only ones to scan brains of bats when they’re awake, in an attempt to answer these questions.”
But Yovel is willing to admit that even the advanced surveillance system and brain scanning are not expected to reveal all the hidden mechanisms and inner-lives of bats anytime soon.
He shows a photo of a tangled forest and asks us to imagine what it’s like to be a bat between the trees.
“You receive signals from thousands of echoes through merely two antennas—your ears—and each one of them receives a one-dimensional signal. Between thousands of echoes, while you are flying fast through trees and trying not to bump into them, you need to trace a small moth that discloses its existence just by fluttering its wings. It’s a problem no human radar has ever solved. We just don’t know how they do it.”
Or Shmueli is a health writer for Israeli innovation news website, www.nocamels.com, and is currently getting her BA in Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
Editor: Jamie Morgan