Home Project Ideas Project Guide Ask An Expert Blog Careers Teachers Parents Students

Bat Detector: Listen to the Secret Sounds of Bats

Difficulty
Time Required Long (2-4 weeks)
Prerequisites Provide a brief description of requirements: Since this project involves studying bats in their native environment, you should start this project only if you are confident you have bats in your neighborhood. Ask your science teacher if there are local bats that you can observe.
Material Availability You will need to purchase a bat detector for this science fair project. See the Materials & Equipment section for more details on where to purchase one.
Cost Average ($50 - $100)
Safety For this science fair project, you will be listening to bats as they fly near you. You will not be touching them or disturbing them in any way, so there are no safety issues. However, if you do see a bat on the ground, do not touch it because bats can carry dangerous diseases.

Abstract

Do you have bats in your neighborhood? Have you heard them "whoosh" by you, but not been able to see them? In this science fair project, you will be able to detect flying bats by listening in on the ultrasonic signals they produce to locate objects in their environment. The bat detector is a useful and fun tool for studying the biology of this nocturnal flying mammal.

Objective

The objective of this mammalian biology science fair project is to study the behavior of bats in the wild, based on the sounds they make. You will use a device that is designed to detect the ultrasonic pulses made by bats.

Credits

David Whyte, PhD, Science Buddies

Share your story with Science Buddies!

I did this project I Did This Project! Please log in and let us know how things went.


Last edit date: 2012-12-07

Introduction

Bats are the only mammals that have wings and the ability to fly. Their wings are made of a membrane, the patagium, that is an extension of the skin from the back and belly area. Their wingspans vary from 5 feet in the large flying fox bat to 6 inches in the hog-nosed bat.

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Chiroptera
Sub-orders Megachiroptera and Microchiroptera
Families 18
Species 977

Table 1. This table shows the classification for bat species.

Bats belong in the order Chiroptera. Chiroptera is a huge order, containing nearly one-quarter of all mammal species. It is exceeded only by rodents in the number of species that comprise it. Bats are divided into two sub-orders, the Megachiroptera and the Microchiroptera. Megachiroptera tend to be bigger than the Microchiroptera, have a fox-like face, and lack features for echolocation, which is a way of locating distant or invisible objects, like prey, by sound waves that are reflected back to the emitter, such as a bat, from the objects.

Big-eared-townsend-fledermaus bat.
Figure 1. Townsend's big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii) is a microchiropteran bat that is found in western North America. It typically preys on moths over open pastures and forest canopies. (Wikipedia, 2008.)

All Microchiroptera, on the other hand, use echolocation to find prey and to navigate while flying at night. Echolocation calls are vocalizations that are produced in the larynx (voice box) and then sent out through the mouth or the nostrils. Like other types of sound, bat signals are transmitted through the air as vibrations, or periodic fluctuations in air pressure. The pitch of the sound is determined by its frequency. Frequency is measured in hertz (Hz), or cycles per second. The unit kilohertz (kHz) is equal to 1000 Hz. Echolocating bats emit an ultrasonic pulse and analyze the returning echo to determine the distance to the object, its speed, as well as what type of object it is. Ultrasonic signals, by definition, have frequencies that are higher than the upper limit for human hearing, which is about 20 kHz.

Most bats alternate between emitting sound and listening for returning sound. Bats can change the design of their calls to fit the task—navigating, searching for flying insects, or snatching insects off of plants.

The ability to echolocate has allowed many bats to exploit flying nocturnal insects as a food source, as well as to live in dark caves. Most likely as a result of increased reliance on echolocation, microchiropteran bats have reduced vision capabilities, having lost some of the complexity found in the eyes and brains of megachiropteran bats, but it not true that bats are blind!

Interestingly, some moths have evolved the ability to hear the echolocating sounds made by bats. When one of these moths hears calls of an approaching bat, it might make evasive maneuvers. Some insects actually emit sounds in response to bat calls. This apparently confuses the bat, although it does not directly jam the signal.

Because the frequencies of bat sounds are too high for humans to hear, scientists use bat detectors to transpose bat sounds to a lower frequency. For this science fair project, you will use a frequency division bat detector. These instruments lower the pitch (frequency) by a factor of 16 so the calls fall within the range of human hearing, which is between 20 and 20,000 Hz. For example, a call that was originally 64,000 Hz is played back at 4,000 Hz (4 kHz) with the frequency division bat detector. You can hear an example of a recording made using this type of bat detector at the USGS link in the Bibliography, below. There are other types of detectors besides the frequency division type, but they tend to be more expensive.

Before you start this science fair project, you should have a good idea of where you will go to study bats in your area. They are active starting a few minutes after sundown, which is a good time to go because you might be able to see them in the dim light. Wooded areas and freshwater sources are good places to spot them. Do your research before you start so that you can predict what species of bats you are most likely to encounter. Take an adult with you to help, and don't forget your bug spray!

Terms and Concepts

  • Patagium
  • Chiroptera
  • Megachiroptera
  • Microchiroptera
  • Echolocation
  • Frequency
  • Hertz (Hz)
  • Kilohertz (kHz)
  • Ultrasonic
  • Frequency division bat detector
  • Qualitative
  • Quantitative

Questions:

  • How do bats use echolocation to navigate and find prey?
  • Do any other animals use echolocation?
  • What do bats do during the winter when there are no insects to eat?
  • What positive contributions do bats make to our environment? (Hint: what diseases can be transmitted by mosquitoes?)
  • Are bats rodents?
  • What do the bats eat?

Bibliography

Materials and Equipment

  • Purchase a frequency division bat detector. Two online sources are Edmund Scientific catalog # 3085040 and Convergence Tech, Inc.
  • A digital recording device to record bat sounds; a laptop with a microphone will also work
  • Optional: use a video recorder to document your observation sessions.
  • Lab notebook
  • Graph paper

Disclaimer: Science Buddies occasionally provides information (such as part numbers, supplier names, and supplier weblinks) to assist our users in locating specialty items for individual projects. The information is provided solely as a convenience to our users. We do our best to make sure that part numbers and descriptions are accurate when first listed. However, since part numbers do change as items are obsoleted or improved, please send us an email if you run across any parts that are no longer available. We also do our best to make sure that any listed supplier provides prompt, courteous service. Science Buddies does participate in affiliate programs with Amazon.comsciencebuddies, Carolina Biological, and AquaPhoenix Education. Proceeds from the affiliate programs help support Science Buddies, a 501( c ) 3 public charity. If you have any comments (positive or negative) related to purchases you've made for science fair projects from recommendations on our site, please let us know. Write to us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.

Share your story with Science Buddies!

I did this project I Did This Project! Please log in and let us know how things went.

Experimental Procedure

In this science fair project, you will be observing bats in their native environment. The goal is to learn as much as you can about the bats: Where can they be found? What time of day are they active? How do they use echolocation to find prey? How do they impact the local environment? These sorts of observations are the beginning steps for any wildlife biology project. Once you have observed the bats, try to make some predictions about them. For example, if you found lots of bats near a local water source, can you predict another spot that you would expect to find them? In interpreting your observations, consider how habitat destruction and the use of insecticides might affect the bat population. The following procedure offers a few suggestions for the types of experiments you can do. After a few days of observation, you will be the local expert on bat biology!

To start this science fair project, you should first do some research on the bats that are found in your region so that you can identify the ones that you observe. Check with your science teacher for information about your local bats before you purchase the bat detector. Make sure that you have bats near your home that you can study, and that they are active at the time of year you are doing your project (bats are not active in cold weather!).

  1. Purchase your bat detector, either as an assembled detector, or as a kit that your can build yourself (the kit may require soldering).
  2. Before you begin the experiment, ask your teacher where you can find information about the species of bats in your area. You can also use online resources and local natural history museums to learn about your local species of bats.
  3. Go with an adult to a location where bats are active. Bats are usually found where there are flying insects. Wooded areas and bodies of freshwater are excellent places to hear bats. Going out 15-45 minutes after sunset allows you to still see them against the early night sky. If you arrive just before sunset, you'll be able to see and identify them before it's too dark.
    1. Try to identify the species of bats you observe.
    2. Caution: Like other wildlife, if handled or molested, bats will defend themselves by biting. And like all mammals, bats can be carriers of the rabies virus. You should not pick up a bat that is on the ground, or touch one that is roosting.
  4. Turn the bat detector on when you see the bats. Listen to the sounds the bats make as "translated" by your bat detector. How close do the bats need to be before you can detect them?
  5. Record the sounds made by your bat detector so that you can study them later. A digital audio recorder is preferred because it allows you to store your audio files on your computer.
  6. Log your observations in your lab notebook. Note the times that you observed the bats and take careful notes of their behavior. Also record the time of sunset for your area, which you can find online, such as at weather websites.
  7. Your hypothesis and experiment can be related to any of the following you choose, but remember, in order to be confident about your data, you’ll need to repeat your experiment three times (ideally, on three different days). Then you’ll be able to make accurate conclusions.
    1. How do insect levels and bat activity correlate? Make a qualitative judgment about the insect activity levels. Do they seem high, average, or low? Make sure you use the same criteria each time to make this judgment. Then make a quantitative measurement of the bat activity level, using calls in a 5-minute interval as your metric.
    2. How many different types of calls do the bats make? Which calls are the most common? Note the different types of calls made by the bats as they navigate and as they approach their prey. What types of changes would you predict the bat would make in its call as it gets closer to its prey? Are the vocalizations different when the bat is closing in on prey?
    3. Does bat activity change over the course of the evening? At what time did you detect the most bats? Use the number of bat calls in a 5-minute interval as your quantitative measurement. Make a graph with time on the x-axis and the amount of bat activity on the y-axis.
    4. Can you identify the species of bats in your area? Make a chart showing the types of bats you observed and their relative abundance.
    5. Locate a bat call library online and try to match your recordings with bat calls in the library. This will work best if you already have a good idea of the species of bats you are observing, based on your research. More information about bat call analysis software can be found at http://www.bats.org.uk/publications_download.php/367/SoundAnalysisSoftware.pdf. Click the link and save the pdf on your computer in order to view it.

Share your story with Science Buddies!

I did this project I Did This Project! Please log in and let us know how things went.


Variations

  • Try to film the bats using a night-vision video camera as you record the bats' calls. Is there a relationship between the bats' speed or movement and the calls they make?

Share your story with Science Buddies!

I did this project I Did This Project! Please log in and let us know how things went.

Ask an Expert

The Ask an Expert Forum is intended to be a place where students can go to find answers to science questions that they have been unable to find using other resources. If you have specific questions about your science fair project or science fair, our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.

Ask an Expert

Related Links

If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:

wildlife biologist holding goslings

Zoologist and Wildlife Biologist

Ever wondered what wild animals do all day, where a certain species lives, or how to make sure a species doesn't go extinct? Zoologists and wildlife biologists tackle all these questions. They study the behaviors and habitats of wild animals, while also working to maintain healthy populations, both in the wild and in captivity. Read more
sound engineer working

Sound Engineering Technician

Any time you hear music at a concert, a live speech, the police sirens in a TV show, or the six o'clock news you're hearing the work of a sound engineering technician. Sound engineering technicians operate machines and equipment to record, synchronize, mix, or reproduce music, voices, or sound effects in recording studios, sporting arenas, theater productions, or movie and video productions. Read more