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Caught in the act: Bats use the sound of copulating flies as a cue for foraging

Date:
July 23, 2012
Source:
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology
Summary:
Mating activities are a dangerous business because the attention to other important events in the surroundings is often reduced. Therefore the duration of copulation itself is usually very short. About 100 years ago researchers argued that copulating animals are at a higher risk of being discovered and, consequently, being eaten by a predator. Yet, surprisingly, there are only few observations that support this hypothesis. Now, researchers have found that when they play a recording of the copulation sounds of flies, bats try to attack the loudspeakers.

A pair of Natterer's bats.
Credit: © Stefan Greif/MPI for Ornithology

Mating activities are a dangerous business because the attention to other important events in the surroundings is often reduced. Therefore the duration of copulation itself is usually very short. About 100 years ago researchers argued that copulating animals are at a higher risk of being discovered and, consequently, being eaten by a predator. Yet, surprisingly, there are only few observations that support this hypothesis. These examples comprise studies in water-living insects, such as amphipods and water striders, and also in land insects, as investigated in a recent study in Australian plague locusts that are at a higher risk of being eaten as mating pairs compared to single animals.

Apart from decreased attention, a reduced flight response as well as an enhanced conspicuousness induces a higher risk for these winged lovers to be easy prey. Stefan Greif from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, and colleagues, have now provided experimental proof for this phenomenon. In a community of house flies and Natterer's bats in a cowshed near Marburg, Germany, they analysed videotapes of the movements of almost 9000 flies. The researchers found that the flies rarely fly at night and mostly sit or run on the ceiling. Finding the flies by echolocation is nearly impossible for the bats as the faint insect echo is completely masked by the strong background echo which makes them virtually "invisible."

This scenario completely changes when the male flies find a suitable mating partner. The subsequent copulation is a noisy event because males then produce broadband buzzing sounds that can be heard by the bats. Around five per cent of the fly pairs that engage in copulation were attacked and mostly eaten by the bats (across four observation years, even 26 per cent of the observed copulating pairs were attacked).

In order to provide evidence that it is really the sound that makes the flies detectable for the bats, the researchers mounted dead, noiseless fly pairs on the shed ceiling in a position they usually take during copulation. These exhibits provide a larger reflection area for echolocation of the bats compared to a single fly. However, they were never attacked by the bats. Only when the researchers played back the copulation sounds of the flies, did the bats try to attack the loudspeakers. Accordingly Stefan Greif summarizes the results of the study in a simplistic way: "sex kills."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Björn M. Siemers, Eva Kriner, Ingrid Kaipf, Matthias Simon, Stefan Greif. Bats eavesdrop on the sound of copulating flies. Current Biology, 2012; 22 (14): R563 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.06.030

Cite This Page:

Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. "Caught in the act: Bats use the sound of copulating flies as a cue for foraging." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 July 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120723134525.htm>.
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. (2012, July 23). Caught in the act: Bats use the sound of copulating flies as a cue for foraging. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120723134525.htm
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. "Caught in the act: Bats use the sound of copulating flies as a cue for foraging." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120723134525.htm (accessed October 21, 2014).

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