Chicago researchers help discover how some bats evolved differently

New research released this week shows how some bats evolved differently, allowing them to echolocate differently.

Behind the scenes at the Field Museum, there are thousands of specimens of bats that can look a bit creepy to some people.

"Many people share the creepy crawly aspects of bats," said Bruce Patterson, Field Museum’s MacArthur Curator of Mammals.

But Patterson has studied bats 40 years and finds them fascinating.

"Bats are the second most diverse group of mammals. They are 1,450 species known and new species are being discovered every year," explained Patterson.

And a big mystery was just revealed with help from scientists at the Field Museum and the University of Chicago.

They discovered a bunch of bats, both large and small, took an evolutionary off-road at some point, developing next level sonar capabilities. That's when they echolocate using sound waves to navigate.

"To think that they can not only avoid flying into the trees that they're passing through, but can trap a small flying insect and intercept that in space," said Patterson, marveling at the ability.

In the Chicago museum known best for big dinosaurs this research was done by peering into tiny, tiny bat ears with micro CT scans.


Patterson says they discovered a tiny inner ear structure in many bat species, that's radically different than in any other mammal.

"So it's almost like finding a needle in the haystack in the sense that there are so many different faces and ears and sizes of these bats, to find one character that ties them all together is very satisfying," said Patterson.

Patterson says this gives deeper understanding of a mammal we really need, for their pest control alone.

"Their contributions to US agriculture estimated between three and $50 billion dollars a year," he explained.

Maybe now they don't look quite so creepy.