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Studying how bats hunt in flight

For the first time, researchers are studying how bats manoeuvre when they capture their prey in flight.
Black and white photo of a bat flying in the wind tunnel.

Biologists at the Faculty of Science in Lund, Sweden, are studying how long-eared bats manoeuvre when they hunt and catch prey, such as insects. Per Henningsson, a researcher at the Department of Biology at Lund University, described the study so far in conjunction with a conference arranged by the Society for Experimental Biology.

“The way bats perform in flight is a real feat, because it requires high precision at speed, and they must also consider wind, turbulence, foliage and other nearby obstacles”, he says.

To increase knowledge of bats’ aerodynamics and technique in various manoeuvres, Per Henningsson and his colleagues are observing the animals hunting prey in a wind tunnel at the department. The researchers use flow visualisation techniques to analyse the aerodynamics, and high-speed filming to analyse how the wings move through the air. They study how a manoeuvre starts, how it is performed and how it ends.

“Insect-eating bats in particular must be very good at manoeuvring, as they often catch their prey in flight. Sometime the insects are flying, sometimes they are on a leaf or a tree trunk, but the bats still manage to catch the insects”, says Per Henningsson.

It is an ongoing study, so there are no final results yet. In addition to long-eared bats, Per Henningsson and his research team are also studying the flying manoeuvres of insects and birds. The aim is to collect sufficient data to enable a comparison of the three groups as a means to increase knowledge about the aerodynamics behind the animals’ manoeuvres in flight.

“The wings in the three respective groups are quite different, so one would think that the aerodynamics would vary quite a lot. However, we already know that there are a number of similarities. At present, we don’t how different or similar the aerodynamics will prove to be, but one imagines there will be quite a lot of surprises”, he concludes.

Jan Olsson

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