Echolocation is one of the many mind-blowing tools that some animals have evolved to use. Like the technology used in a submarine or a sonar system, animals can use echolocation to find food, avoid obstacles in their surroundings, and even escape predation. If you aren’t quite sure what echolocation is, don’t be intimidated. Simplified, it’s the use of sound to detect objects. There are countless animals that use echolocation, but today we will focus on some of the most common.
9 animals that use echolocation
One of the most well-known users of echolocation is the bat. There are over 1400 species of bats that make their home all over the globe. What do they all have in common? The use of echolocation! Bats are nocturnal animals that have fairly poor ocular vision, but what they lack in eyesight they make up for with their ears and their use of sound.
What each bat species is looking for varies. Some feed on fruit, others are insectivores, and most famously, some even feed on the blood of other mammals. It’s a widely shared myth that bats will fly into humans and get stuck in their hair, but thanks to echolocation, this is only a myth.
Even in the dark, a bat can make out the form of a human and easily avoid running into them.
Everyone loves dolphins and it’s easy to see why. These adorable sea mammals are incredibly intelligent and have been known to aid humans that are in distress, saving them from drowning and even protecting them from sharks. Dolphins are another amazing mammal that utilizes echolocation. They use it to find food and to navigate when the water is murky or it’s too dark to see. Unlike bats, the dolphin doesn’t produce sounds via vocal cords, but from a fatty structure on their head called a melon.
The melon sends out sound in a specific direction and the way those sounds hit objects and come back to the dolphin is received by structures in the dolphin’s jaw. Depending on the distance the dolphin needs to scan, the frequencies will be higher or lower with higher frequencies going shorter distances than lower frequencies.
3. Sperm Whales
Sperm whales were made famous by Herman Melvil in the classic book Moby Dick. Unlike the whale in the story, sperm whales do not in fact spend any of their time angrily trying to capsize boats. Unless you are a deep-sea animal such as a squid, shark, skate, or fish, it is unlikely sperm whales will pay you any attention at all.
These magnificent animals are incredible in their diving abilities, at times going as deep as 10,000 feet and holding their breath for 60 or more minutes. While this is amazing on its own, they have also developed echolocation as a means of finding prey once they reach the dark depths of their hunting ground.
Dolphins and many other animals in the toothed whale family of odontocetes use echolocation in addition to their vision, but sperm whales are unique in that they rely almost solely on echolocation to find food. Due to this, sperm whales are actually at risk due to sound pollution in the sea. Noises created by humans can cause sperm whales to have trouble finding food and cause them to lose their bearings and become lost.
Sperm whales are probably one of my favorite sea creatures, after narwhals of course, due to their incredible social structures and their slow growth rates with females reaching maturity at around 20 years old and males at around 30. These animals are incredibly intelligent and beautiful and I hope we are able to protect them and keep them swimming in our oceans for a long time.
The third member of the odontocetes group I am going to touch on is the Narwhal. If you are like me, you already know quite a bit about these underwater unicorns, but if you don’t, I’m sure they will charm you like they have so many others. Narwhals are very similar to their cousins, beluga whales, other than their color and their horns.
The narwhal horn is actually an elongated tooth that continues growing for the life of the animal, can reach up to 9 feet, and aids them with echolocation. The Narwhal tooth, also referred to as a tusk, has over a million nerve endings and is actually quite flexible. The tusk is only an aide to echolocation, and not used exclusively for this task.
Since usually only males have tusks, it’s hypothesized that they are also used for impressing females and for catching prey. Not by stabbing it as you might imagine, but by hitting and stunning prey so the narwhal can more easily catch it.
5. Pygmy Dormice
These adorable little rodents are visually impaired and as such have developed echolocation as a means to navigate their environment and find food. There are several species of Pygmy Dormouse, with one, the African Pygmy Dormouse, recently gaining popularity as an exotic pet in the US and Europe.
Another small animal that may be utilizing echolocation is the shrew. These small mammals are actually quite interesting. Living primarily underground it has been speculated that they use echolocation in conjunction with their whiskers to locate prey and move around their tunnels.
One of the few mammals with venom, they can actually cache their prey for later without killing them. The venom works by paralyzing the animal’s prey so they can drag them to their food stash. The vole can then leave them for upwards of two weeks before they wake up or decide they are hungry enough to eat them.
These adorable little quilled creatures are native to Madagascar and are often mistaken for hedgehogs. While some species may look similar tenrecs are very different due to their use of echolocation. Unlike the animals we have talked about so far, tenrecs use echolocation in order to communicate with each other. Living in family units they tap their quills together to let each other know where they are and if they are sensing danger.
8. Swiftlets and Oilbirds
Echolocation is a rare trait for birds, but two types of birds do utilize it. Swiftlets and oilbirds are cave-dwelling species that use their echolocation almost exclusively to find their nests in their dark caves and to communicate with other birds in their flocks.
Weird fact, swiftlets make their nests almost exclusively from their own saliva and it’s considered a delicacy in some countries and used to make soup. Both oilbirds and swiftlets are insectivores, but don’t have the echolocation skills that could aid them in hunting.
The aye aye is the only primate that is thought to have evolved a rudimentary version of echolocation. With their bat-like ears, these mammals tap on trees and decipher the sound that is made in order to find insects to eat. They then bore into the wood and pull out their prey. Natives in the area of the Aye aye believe they are bad luck and kill them on sight. This has sadly caused the aye aye to be an endangered species.
Echolocation is truly an incredible technology. The fact that animals have evolved to utilize it in so many different ways is fascinating and, frankly, a little mind-blowing. The way animals have evolved over millions of years will never fail to make me feel awed and amazed.