Quirks & Quarks

Faster, higher, stronger — bats reach Olympian heights and record speeds

European bats ride updrafts to get to 1600 metres in altitude, and fly at 135 km/h

European bats ride updrafts to get to 1600 metres in altitude, and fly at 135 km/h

A European bat with GPS tag attached to its back (Teague O'Mara)

Bats are famous for their ability to echolocate for navigating and foraging. But a new study has found them to be surprisingly proficient flyers — achieving impressive altitudes and reaching great speeds.

Teague O'Mara, from the Department of Biological Sciences at Southeastern Louisiana University equipped European bats in Portugal with small GPS data loggers to study their flight over three nights. 

Bats fixed with GPS data-logger (Teague O'Mara)

A mile high

The results showed a roller-coaster-like flight path as the bats travelled around foraging for food. Sometimes they were able to reach a peak 1600 metres in about 20 seconds. The data-loggers revealed that the bats are relying on a phenomenon known as orographic lift, which occurs at night when bats leave their roost and fly.

Orographic lift occurs when air is forced from a low elevation to a higher elevation as it moves over terrain that is changing in height. The bats make use of this because it allows for faster and less energetically costly flight. But it also presented the researchers with a mystery about how the bats were navigating, as bat echolocation only covers about 30 to 50 metres ahead of them. 

Terrain covered at night by European bats in the study (Teague O'Mara)

More study is required but it does suggest bats have an understanding of how to use those currents as well as a memory of the terrain. 

Surprising top speed

Although bats were previously known to fly high in pursuit of moths, the maximum air speed the researchers measured was a surprise. In level flight they reached an impressive speed of 135 kilometres per hour. Falcons, the fastest flying bird, dive at top speeds of 160kph. Bats are small bodied with very thin wings that they do not fully extend in a soaring position. How they are able to fly at this speed will also require further study. 



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