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Borina, Frank; Firzlaff, Uwe; Wiegrebe, Lutz (2011): Neural coding of echo-envelope disparities in echolocating bats. In: Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology, Vol. 197, No. 5: pp. 561-569
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Abstract

The effective use of echolocation requires not only measuring the delay between the emitted call and returning echo to estimate the distance of an ensonified object. To locate an object in azimuth and elevation, the bat's auditory system must analyze the returning echoes in terms of their binaural properties, i.e., the echoes' interaural intensity and time differences (IIDs and ITDs). The effectiveness of IIDs for echolocation is undisputed, but when bats ensonify complex objects, the temporal structure of echoes may facilitate the analysis of the echo envelope in terms of envelope ITDs. Using extracellular recordings from the auditory midbrain of the bat, Phyllostomus discolor, we found a population of neurons that are sensitive to envelope ITDs of echoes of their sonar calls. Moreover, the envelope-ITD sensitivity improved with increasing temporal fluctuations in the echo envelopes, a sonar parameter related to the spatial statistics of complex natural reflectors like vegetation. The data show that in bats envelope ITDs may be used not only to locate external, prey-generated rustling sounds but also in the context of echolocation. Specifically, the temporal fluctuations in the echo envelope, which are created when the sonar emission is reflected from a complex natural target, support ITD-mediated echolocation.