They found that both in randomized exploration and during targeted navigation, such as the task of finding food, bats maintained a detailed spatial memory of both the surroundings and the paths they traveled. Experiments have also revealed that bats also have spatial awareness of their future positions.
“We have neurons that all fire at the same time, but they represent different parts of the larger path,” says Dotson. “So it represents the past, the present and the future, not just now.”
The ability to determine position over time using this natural GPS system is one of the greatest tools for bat survival, which helps them locate food and avoid predators.
Different species can weigh the importance of past, present, and future experiences in different ways, the study notes. In a survival scenario like “monkeys jumping between tree branches or people driving a car or skiing downhill at high speed,” for example, future information may be most important for survival.
“The bat has to plan both locally in time and in the future, in order to be successful in its hunting behavior,” says Melville Wohlgemuth, a researcher at Batlab from the University of Arizona. “These are brain processes that are relevant to our lives as well.”
Examining species that are not ours has long been a feature of neuroscience, and studying the hippocampus of bats could provide scientists with a better insight into how certain diseases affect our own brains.
For example, learning more about bats could change the way we look at Alzheimer’s disease – a brain disorder that slowly destroys cognitive functions and memory. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have trouble intuitively navigating new routes or new locations, even when they have encountered them several times.