Bats can flutter, hover, dive-bomb and change directions midair with tremendous agility because their wings are equipped with highly sensitive touch sensors, cells that respond to even slight changes in airflow, researchers have demonstrated for the first time. The Columbia University Medical Center findings also suggest that neurons in the bat brain respond to incoming airflow and touch signals, triggering rapid adjustments in wing position to optimize flight control.
Study author Ellen Lumpkin said that this study provides evidence that the sense of touch plays a key role in the evolution of powered flight in mammals and also lays the groundwork for understanding what sensory information bats use to perform such remarkable feats when flying through the air and catching insects. Lumpkin added that humans cannot currently build aircrafts that match the agility of bats, so a better grasp of these processes could inspire new aircraft design and new sensors for monitoring airflow.
Bats must rapidly integrate different types of sensory information to catch insects and avoid obstacles while fly ing. The contribution of hearing and vision to bat flight is well established, but the role of touch has received little attention since the discovery of echolocation.
Recently, co-senior study author Cynthia Moss and co-author Susanne Sterbing-D'Angelo of The Johns Hopkins University discovered that microscopic wing hairs stimulated by airflow, are critical for flight behaviors such as turning and controlling speed, but until now, it was not known how bats use tactile feedback from their wings to control flight behaviors. While sensory cells located between the "fingers" could respond to skin stretch and changes in wind direction, another set of receptors associated with hairs could be specialized for detecting turbulent airflow during flight, says Sterbing-D'Angelo. Moss noted that an even bigger goal will be to understand how the bat integrates sensoryinformation from the many receptors in the wing to create smooth, nimble flight.