The Neuroecology of Bat Communication: Yossi Yovel’s Innovative Studies

Exploring the World of Bats: Yossi Yovel’s Contributions to Neuroecology

Yossi Yovel is an associate professor in both the School of Zoology and the School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University (TAU). He holds a B.Sc. in Physics and Biology, and an M.Sc. in Neuroscience from TAU, along with a Ph.D. in Biological Cybernetics from the University of Tübingen, Germany, where he applied machine learning techniques to classify bio-sonar echoes. Before joining TAU as a faculty member, Yovel completed postdoctoral research at the Weizmann Institute of Science and the University of Chicago. He currently leads the Bio-sonar Laboratory at TAU, focusing on bat bio-sonar and its applications in robotics. The lab employs advanced audio and video recording technologies and has developed the smallest miniature sensors for mounting on echolocating bats in the field. Yovel’s research integrates Neuroecology, combining Neuroscience and Ecology to conduct controlled experiments in natural settings. He has authored over 30 peer-reviewed publications and received numerous awards, including the Alon Scholarship and the Krill Prize. His work specifically explores the vocalizations of Egyptian fruit bats. Over several months, Yovel and his team recorded and analyzed these bats’ sounds, discovering that their calls can convey detailed information about the caller’s identity, environment, behavioral reactions, and even social interactions. They created an extensive database by cataloging the vocal development of bat pups from birth to adulthood under various conditions, contributing valuable insights into social vocal communication in mammals.

Yossi Yovel’s Google Schola page | Featured on National Geographic 1 , 2

How did you come to specialise in neuroecology? Can you tell us about your path into this field? What sparked your interest in the sensory systems of bats?

I studied physics and biology as an undergrad and was interested in an animal model that combines both. I read about bat echolocation and was fascinated. I was also enchanted by the lectures in neuroscience and all together this led me to expertise on bats

What have been some of the most significant milestones in your research career so far? How do bats’ sensory systems compare to those of other mammals in terms of complexity and function?

There are many studies I can mention. Here are a few examples – 1. We reared bat pups in helium and found that their brain encodes an innate speed of sound. 2. We showed that bats can translate echolocation perception to vision. 

Yossi Novel 2
© Yossi Novel

Many people think that all bats feed on blood, but there are over 1200 different species, including many fruit bats. Which species have you studied over the years?

There are neary 1500 species and we studied about 20. I like to say that the great thing about bats is their diversity. For almost any behaviour you are interested in there is a bat to study. 

What are some of the primary methods and technologies you use in your research on bat sensing? Can you tell us about any innovative techniques you have used to study the neural mechanisms in bats?

The main innovation of our lab are miniature sensors that can be mounted on the bat and include gps, microphone, eeg, acceleration and more.

Bats use echolocation to orient themselves in space, but they also learn to recognize each other’s voices for communication. What can you tell us about this ability?

This is true. Bats use sound both for sensing and communication. We would love to know more on how their brains do both, but still don’t know much

The bat’s brain shares similarities with the human brain. Since bats communicate with each other, do they have a social nature?

It depends on the species. But some species are extremely social roosting together for dozens of years. Some bats live in a harem structure and some like vampires show altruistic behaviour.

Research shows that a species of North American bat “sings” to court and attract females while repelling males, a behaviour similar to that of birds. What are some of the most surprising or significant findings from your research on bats? Can you share a meaningful or unexpected story from your research on bats?

A few years ago we showed that mother bats will carry their pups to trees and this way teach them to navigate.

What are the current gaps or unanswered questions in the field of neurobiology and bat sensing that you are eager to explore?

There are many. Here are a few – do bats encode the world in 3d? How does their brain do that? How do they integrate vision and echolocation?

Neuroscientists study how the brain shapes animal behaviour. From your research perspective, why do you think some people find it difficult to believe that animals have their own forms of communication? What about the aspects of feelings and emotions? As a neuroecologist, what is your perspective?

People like to think they are unique but today we know this is not true. Nature is a continuem in all of its aspects. 

Bats use their “radar” system to orient themselves in space, but to communicate they learn to recognize the voices of their peers. The ability to distinguish the voice of each individual seems to be fundamental to their ability to remain in a group while flying quickly in the darkness.

The Neuroecology of Bat Communication Yossi Yovel’s Innovative Studies b
Bats are the only mammals that fly and recognize each other also by their voice © J. Rydell

Bats perform important functions in numerous ecosystems. Can you share any insights on how your research can help conservation efforts or have practical applications in technology and medicine?

I think that a better understanding of animal behaviour e.g, of what they eat in the wild, improves conservation. Our work on sonar has also provided inspiration for various robotic efforts for example in agriculture. 

What altruistic behaviours have you observed?

We have observed that male fruit bats share food with females and then select which male to mate with according to this. In Vampire bats other researchers have observed that females will donate food to other females when they cannot find food and that this behaviour is altruistic. 

What topics do the bats you have studied communicate about most frequently?

Our bats (fruit bats) communicate mostly when fighting – about space, mating, sleep and so on. In other species mother pup and courtship communication have been demonstrated. 

If you are deeply interested in the study of bat communication, Yossi Yovel provides a series of engaging videos on this topic:

Photos courtesy of J. Rydell

Last Updated on June 7, 2024 by retrofuturista

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