The sight of bats bursting forth from caves at dusk is majestic enough to dazzle any spectator, scientist, or Gotham City billionaire orphan vigilante. Comprised of hundreds of thousands of mammalian aeronauts, these massive clouds of biomass seem to move as one organism, demonstrating the extraordinary coordination of individual bats.
Or, so it would appear to the untrained eye. High-speed video cameras, however, reveal that bats are a lot more accident-prone than they look at first glance. A new featurette from the California Academy of Sciences follows bat biologists Nickolay Hristov and Louise Allen into the field near Hill Country in central Texas, to document the twilight flights of Brazilian free-tailed bats.
"We expected that they fly around each other and they never have physical contact," Hristov said. "We have found, shocking to us, that bats crash into each other quite often. It's a messy situation, but generally it's very safe and it works very well."
"Often nature works in that way," he added. "it just needs to be good enough."
These occasional collisions don't usually result in serious injury, and for the most part, bats seem fairly adept at avoiding them. To mitigate the risk of a midair crash, many bat species use echolocation to monitor the whereabouts of their neighbor, and often fly in formation around a chosen leader.
The intricacies of this "bat ballet" can be further decoded with the help of time-sensitive cameras, and advanced data simulations like those used by Hristov and Allen.