Bats are 3-D cartographers

Special cells in the mammal’s brain chart its path as it flies

Holy flying fruit bats!

FLYING MAPMAKER The Egyptian fruit bat (pictured) uses neurons called place cells to draw mental maps of 3-D spaces. Courtesy of Organization for Bat Conservation and Steve Gettle Photography

An Egyptian fruit bat (shown in an illustration) wears a monitoring device on its head to record neural activity. Sharon Kaufman, Science

Neurons called place cells help Egyptian fruit bats, Rousettus aegyptiacus, navigate three-dimensional spaces, researchers report April 18 in Science.

By implanting electrodes in the bats’ brains and strapping on lightweight wireless recording devices to their heads, researchers measured neural activity as the animals flew up, down and around a room. Individual place cells perked up when bats zoomed through particular spaces, report Michael Yartsev and Nachum Ulanovsky of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

Just as spots on a map represent locations, each place cell represented a specific area of the room. Like cartographers charting new lands on paper, bats sketch mental maps of spaces they fly through. But unlike cartographers — or rats, which researchers have studied walking across flat surfaces — bats use their place cells to move through three dimensions.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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