Touch sensors guide bats to fly with radar-like precision

Bat wings are equipped with highly sensitive touch sensors, giving them the ability to fly with spectacular precision. These cellular sensors are so delicate they  immediately respond to a slight change in airflow , scientists say.

Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University and the University of Maryland researchers were able to determine how the sense of touch played a crucial role in the bat’s navigational accuracy.

The paper  which was published in the journal Cell Report  explained how sensory receptors in the wings transmit information to brain neurons, giving bats split-second change in direction while on flight.

“Until now no one had investigated the sensors on the bat’s wing, which allow it to serve as a propeller, a flipper, an airplane wing or any simple airfoil.
“The findings can shed more light how organisms use touch to guide their movement,” Cynthia F Moss, a Johns Hopkins neuroscientist said.

Moss and her team studied a common species found throughout North America, the big brown bat.  Bats are the only mammals capable of powered flights, reaching speeds up 20 mph with the ability to perform aerial acrobatics which we humans wish we could replicate.
The team were also able to discover the evolutionary process which allows bats to form wings capable of developing rare tactile circuitry which enhances flight control  and allow the bats in utilizing their wings to climb, capture insects and even cradle their young.

Additional array of sensory receptors were found bunched at the base of a small clump of  hair that shelters the wings. .

The location of these touch cells, in both the lanceolate endings and Merkel cells, allows the bat, while in flight to sense airflow changes as air disrupt the hairs.

When the researchers stirred these hairs with short air puffs, bat’s primary somatosensory cortex neurons reacted in precisely timed, but scarce spurts of activity, that suggest this circuitry aid bats during fast and dynamic flights.

The researchers were startlingly amazed to find out that neurons in the wing skin connect to the higher parts of the spinal cord where fore limbs typically connect and also at the lower parts of the spinal cord which  would only innervate an animal’s trunk normally,




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