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Heinrich, Melina; Warmbold, Alexander; Hoffmann, Susanne; Firzlaff, Uwe; Wiegrebe, Lutz (2011): The Sonar Aperture and Its Neural Representation in Bats. In: Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 31, No. 43: pp. 15618-15627
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As opposed to visual imaging, biosonar imaging of spatial object properties represents a challenge for the auditory system because its sensory epithelium is not arranged along space axes. For echolocating bats, object width is encoded by the amplitude of its echo (echo intensity) but also by the naturally covarying spread of angles of incidence from which the echoes impinge on the bat's ears (sonar aperture). It is unclear whether bats use the echo intensity and/or the sonar aperture to estimate an object's width. We addressed this question in a combined psychophysical and electrophysiological approach. In three virtual-object playback experiments, bats of the species Phyllostomus discolor had to discriminate simple reflections of their own echolocation calls differing in echo intensity, sonar aperture, or both. Discrimination performance for objects with physically correct covariation of sonar aperture and echo intensity ("object width") did not differ from discrimination performances when only the sonar aperture was varied. Thus, the bats were able to detect changes in object width in the absence of intensity cues. The psychophysical results are reflected in the responses of a population of units in the auditory midbrain and cortex that responded strongest to echoes from objects with a specific sonar aperture, regardless of variations in echo intensity. Neurometric functions obtained from cortical units encoding the sonar aperture are sufficient to explain the behavioral performance of the bats. These current data show that the sonar aperture is a behaviorally relevant and reliably encoded cue for object size in bat sonar.