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Wikenigma - an Encyclopedia of Unknowns Wikenigma - an Encyclopedia of the Unknown

Echolocation (object recognition)

Many animals (dolphins, bats, shrews, etc etc) can echolocate. That is, by emitting calls the environment and listening to the echoes of those calls that return from various objects near them. Some animals - for example dolphins - can not only locate objects, but can also determine what they are. This skill is as yet unexplained.

Object matching studies with dolphins verify that dolphins can in fact recognize objects using echolocation. Their ability to accomplish this feat is remarkable given the responsiveness of sound to myriad factors including air bubbles, temperature, salinity, density, ambient surfaces, and the multiple surfaces presented by an echolocated object itself. Indeed, echoes from different aspects of a one object can vary more from each other than do echoes from different objects (DeLong, Au, Lemonds, Harley, & Roitblat, 2006). These complications have made it very difficult, for example, for the U.S. Navy to a create a sonar system that recognizes objects as well as dolphins do, a goal that has led to many studies of dolphin echolocation in order to aid in the design of a man-made system that can mimic the dolphin. To date, no such system is available. The best sonar systems continue to exist only in cetaceans.

See: Echoic Object Recognition by the Bottlenose Dolphin. Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 3, 46-65.

A second, as yet unanswered problem about echolocation is that, by definition, it relies on the speed of sound. For animals to be be able to accurately locate, and judge distances, they must have a solid reference regarding the length of time that echoes take to rebound. Recent (2021) research with bats suggests that this reference isn't learned, but is somehow innate. See : PNAS, 118 (19)

This is another example of the puzzle regarding how instinctual behaviours are passed down the generations by an as yet unknown genetic mechanism. See : Instinct and Inheritanceplugin-autotooltip__plain plugin-autotooltip_bigInstinct and Inheritance

Complex behaviour patterns can be learned, but (it appears that) they can also be inherited.

Example 1 The female Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is a so-called 'brood parasitic' - in that it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. This ca…


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