Team led by Virginia Tech associate professor solves mystery of bat with an extraordinary nose
July 9, 2009
A research paper co-written by a Virginia Tech faculty member explains a 60-year mystery behind a rare bat's nose that is unusually large for its species.
The findings soon will be published in the scientific trade journal, Physical Review Letters.
The article, “Acoustic effects accurately predict an extreme case of biological morphology,” by Zhiwei Zhang of Shandong University, Rolf Müller of Virginia Tech, and Son Nguyen Truong of the Vietnamese Academy of Sciences, details the adult Bourret’s horseshoe bat (known scientifically as the “Rhinolophus paradoxolophus” meaning paradoxical crest), and it’s roughly 9 millimeters in length nose. The typical horseshoe bat’s nose is half that amount, said Rolf Mueller, an associate professor with the Virginia Tech mechanical engineering department and director for the Bio-inspired Technology (BIT) Laboratory in Danville, Va. “This nose is so much larger than anything else,” among other bats of the region, he said.
Mueller’s findings show that the bat uses its elongated nose to create a highly focused sonar beam. Bats detect their environment through ultrasonic beams, or sonar, emitted from their noses, as in the case of the paradoxolophus bat, or mouth. The return bounces – echoes – of the sound wave convey a wealth of information on objects in the bat’s environment. From the remote rainforests of South East Asia, this bat received its name 58 years ago because of its mysterious trait.
Much like a flashlight with an adjuster that can create an intense but small beam of light, the bat’s nose can create a small but intense sonar spotlight. Mueller and his team used computer animation to compare varying sizes of bat noses, from small noses on other bats to the large nose of the paradoxolophus bat. In what Mueller calls a perfect mark of evolution, he says his computer modeling shows the length of the paradoxolophus bat’s nose stops at the exact point the sonar beam’s focal point would become ineffective.
Mueller worked on the study with engineers and scientists from China’s Shandong University, where he held a professorship when the research project began, and the Vietnamese Academy of Sciences. The article also will appear on Physical Review Letters’ print edition July 17 and the website July 14.
“By predicting the width of the ultrasonic beam for each of these nose lengths with a computational method, we found that the natural nose length has a special value: All shortened noses provided less focus of the ultrasonic beam, whereas artificially elongated noses provided only negligible additional benefits,” Mueller said. “Hence, this unusual case of a biological shape can be predicted accurately from its physical function alone.”
The findings with the paradoxolophus bat are part of a larger study of approximately 120 different bat species and how they use sonar to perceive their environment. Set to finish in February 2010, it is hoped the study’s focus on wave-based sensing and communication in bats will help spur groundwork for innovations in cell phone and satellite communications, as well as naval surveillance technology.
Mueller has focused much of his research career in bio-inspired technology studying bats. He received a Ph.D. in 1998 at the University of Tuebingen, Germany, where he developed computational models for the biosonar system of bats. During postdoctoral research at Yale University, he worked on biosonar-inspired autonomous robots and statistical signal processing methods in natural outdoor environments. In 2000, he returned to Tuebingen University, where he built a lab to develop robots inspired by bats. In 2003, he joined The Maersk Institute of Production Technology at the University of Southern Denmark as an assistant professor, followed by a professorship at Shandong University. He joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2008.
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