Keeping up with bats: dynamic auditory tuning in a moth

J.F.C. Windmill, J.C. Jackson, Elizabeth Jane Tuck, Daniel Robert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


Many night-flying insects evolved ultrasound sensitive ears in response to acoustic predation by echolocating bats [1] , 2 K.D. Roeder, Nerve Cells and Behavior, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (1967). [2] , [3] , [4] , [5] , [6] , [7] , [8] , [9] and [10] . Noctuid moths are most sensitive to frequencies at 20–40 kHz [6], the lower range of bat ultrasound [5] , [11] , [12] and [13] . This may disadvantage the moth because noctuid-hunting bats in particular echolocate at higher frequencies shortly before prey capture [7] , [11] , [12] and [13] and thus improve their echolocation and reduce their acoustic conspicuousness [6] , [7] , [8] , [9] , [10] , [12] , [13] , [14] , [15] and [16] . Yet, moth hearing is not simple; the ear's nonlinear dynamic response shifts its mechanical sensitivity up to high frequencies. Dependent on incident sound intensity, the moth's ear mechanically tunes up and anticipates the high frequencies used by hunting bats. Surprisingly, this tuning is hysteretic, keeping the ear tuned up for the bat's possible return. A mathematical model is constructed for predicting a linear relationship between the ear's mechanical stiffness and sound intensity. This nonlinear mechanical response is a parametric amplitude dependence [17] and [18] that may constitute a feature common to other sensory systems. Adding another twist to the coevolutionary arms race between moths and bats, these results reveal unexpected sophistication in one of the simplest ears known and a novel perspective for interpreting bat echolocation calls.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2418-2423
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number24
Early online date18 Dec 2006
Publication statusPublished - 19 Dec 2006


  • echolocation
  • acoustic structure
  • frequency bandwith
  • noctuid moths
  • mechanosensory neurones

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