A fruit bat hanging in the corner of a cave stirs; it is ready to move. It scans the space to look for a free perch and then takes flight, adjusting its membranous wings to angle an approach to a spot next to one of its fuzzy fellows. As it does so, neurological data lifted from its brain is broadcast to sensors installed in the cave’s walls.
This is no balmy cave along the Mediterranean Sea. The group of Egyptian fruit bats is in Berkeley, California, navigating an artificial cave in a laboratory that researchers have set up to study the inner workings of the animals’ minds.
The researchers had an idea: that as a bat navigates its physical environment, it’s also navigating a network of social relationships. They wanted to know whether the bats use the same or different parts of their brain to map these intersecting realities.
In a new study published in Nature in August, the scientists revealed that these maps overlap. The brain cells informing a bat of its own location also encode details about other bats nearby — not only their location, but also their identities. The findings raise the intriguing possibility that evolution can program those neurons for multiple purposes to serve the needs of different species. [Continue reading…]