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Heinrich, Melina; Wiegrebe, Lutz (2013): Size constancy in bat biosonar? Perceptual interaction of object aperture and distance.
In: PloS one 8(4), e61577




Perception and encoding of object size is an important feature of sensory systems. In the visual system object size is encoded by the visual angle (visual aperture) on the retina, but the aperture depends on the distance of the object. As object distance is not unambiguously encoded in the visual system, higher computational mechanisms are needed. This phenomenon is termed "size constancy". It is assumed to reflect an automatic re-scaling of visual aperture with perceived object distance. Recently, it was found that in echolocating bats, the 'sonar aperture', i.e., the range of angles from which sound is reflected from an object back to the bat, is unambiguously perceived and neurally encoded. Moreover, it is well known that object distance is accurately perceived and explicitly encoded in bat sonar. Here, we addressed size constancy in bat biosonar, recruiting virtual-object techniques. Bats of the species Phyllostomus discolor learned to discriminate two simple virtual objects that only differed in sonar aperture. Upon successful discrimination, test trials were randomly interspersed using virtual objects that differed in both aperture and distance. It was tested whether the bats spontaneously assigned absolute width information to these objects by combining distance and aperture. The results showed that while the isolated perceptual cues encoding object width, aperture, and distance were all perceptually well resolved by the bats, the animals did not assign absolute width information to the test objects. This lack of sonar size constancy may result from the bats relying on different modalities to extract size information at different distances. Alternatively, it is conceivable that familiarity with a behaviorally relevant, conspicuous object is required for sonar size constancy, as it has been argued for visual size constancy. Based on the current data, it appears that size constancy is not necessarily an essential feature of sonar perception in bats.