Echolocation: A Revolutionary Navigational Technique

Context: In a recent development, engineers have harnessed the power of echolocation to create smartphone apps that generate room maps, greatly aiding individuals with visual impairments in navigating their surroundings more effectively.

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About Echolocation:

  • It is also known as biosonar and constitutes a biological sonar system employed by various animal species.
  • Animals adept in echolocation emit calls into their environment and subsequently capture and interpret the returning echoes of these calls from nearby objects.
  • It is widely used for underwater navigation, communications, and even as a method to find fish. 
  • This intricate technique is a primary sensory tool for animals such as bats, dolphins, and certain other species, facilitating precise object localisation through the analysis of reflected sound waves.
  • It empowers these animals to navigate seamlessly in absolute darkness, supporting activities like hunting, discerning friends from foes, and evading obstacles.
  • Animals that use echolocation emit high-frequency sound pulses, often beyond the range of human hearing.
  • Humans have harnessed the principles of this ingenious technique to create devices like sonar and radar. 

Working of Echolocation

  • Sound Emission: Animals capable of echolocation emit high-frequency sounds, often beyond the range of human hearing. These sounds are usually clicks, whistles, or chirps. The specific frequencies and patterns of these sounds can vary between species.
  • Sound Reflection: When these emitted sounds encounter objects in the environment, they bounce off those objects and create echoes.
  • Echo Reception: The animals’ ears or specialized auditory structures are highly sensitive to detecting the echoes. They can interpret the timing, intensity, and frequency of the echoes to determine the distance, size, shape, texture, and even movement of objects around them.
  • Processing: The brain processes the information from the echoes to build a mental map of the surroundings. Animals can use this information to navigate, locate prey, avoid obstacles, and communicate with other members of their species.

Echolocation Practitioners 

  • Diverse creatures like bats, whales, dolphins, select avian species like the nocturnal oilbird and specific swiftlets, along with shrews and the tenrecs of Madagascar, are recognized echolocation users.
  • Dolphins and toothed whales capitalise on echolocation to gain visibility in murky waters and the depths of the ocean, enabling pursuits of deep-sea prey like squid. They extract information concerning an object’s distance, direction, velocity, density, and dimensions.
  • Bats, by employing echolocation, accomplish nighttime flight and navigation within dark caverns. This ability likely evolved to facilitate the detection of nocturnal insects inaccessible to birds. Bats can detect insects up to a 5-meter distance, gauging size, hardness, and even evading obstacles as delicate as human hairs.
  • The oilbird, active during the night, and certain insect-eating swiftlets employ sharp, audible clicks to guide them through darkness.
  • Some nocturnal shrews emit ultrasonic squeaks to explore their obscure surroundings. Similarly, shrew-like tenrecs from Madagascar employ tongue clicks for nocturnal echolocation, possibly aiding in locating sustenance.
  • Another intriguing possibility is humans – many blind people can find their way around simply by listening to echoes bouncing off surrounding objects.
Source: The Hindu

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