Scientists Say: Echolocation

This word describes a method some animals use to sense their environments with sound

a photo of a flying bat with mouth open

Most bats produce high-pitched calls to echolocate. The sounds and their echoes help the animals navigate or snag a meal.

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Echolocation (noun, “EK-oh-lo-KAY-shun”)

This word describes a process that some animals use to sense their environments with sound.

Many animals depend on sight to find food and survey their surroundings. But a handful of creatures — such as bats, dolphins and shrews — use sound to sense the world around them. Sound travels through the air or water in waves. When these sound waves bump into an object, they bounce off it.

To use echolocation, animals first make a sound. Then, they listen for the echoes from the sound waves bouncing off objects in their surroundings. The animal’s brain can make sense of the sounds and echoes to navigate or find prey.

With echolocation, bats can fly through dark caves and locate insects in the dark of night. Whales make clicks that help them find food in the deep, dark ocean. And even some humans echolocate. Some people who are blind click with their tongues to make sounds. They can make sense of the echoes to avoid bumping into an obstacle.

A few technologies mimic the way animals echolocate. For example, submarines use what’s called sonar to navigate. Sonar systems send out pulses of sound and detect the echoes. And ultrasound, a technology used in medicine, uses sound waves to take pictures inside of the body.

In a sentence

To stay submerged longer, whales recycle air that they’ve used to make echolocation clicks.  

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Carolyn Wilke is a former staff writer at Science News Explores. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Carolyn enjoys writing about chemistry, microbes and the environment. She also loves playing with her cat.

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