NSF grant to focus on how bats evolved to dominate the night

A bat flies at dusk
Taken at dusk as the bat was landing to forage on Palau Pramuka in Kepulauan seribu (Thousand Islands) Indonesia, December 2017. Photo by Igam Ogam on Unsplash

Aaron Corcoran, assistant professor of biology, will work with researchers at Brown University and Lawrence Technological University to study how bats evolved and understand the ecological characteristics they thrive in with a new grant from the National Science Foundation.

Headshot of Aaron Corcoran
Aaron Corcoran

Corcoran will work with Sharon Swartz, an expert in flight biomechanics at Brown, and with Hamid Vejandi, a roboticist and mechanical engineering at Lawrence Tech, on the three-year, $488,757 grant award titled “The Rules of Predation: Linking Biomechanics and Ecology in the Bat-Insect Arms Race.”

“Bats are some of nature’s most maneuverable flyers, but scientists know relatively little about their exact flight abilities and how they achieve these aerial acrobatics,” Corcoran said. “By applying novel video-recording and computer vision technologies, we will measure the precise speed, accelerations and turning abilities as they hunt insects in the natural environment.”

Bats serve a unique role in ecosystems with pollination, seed distribution and insect control. Bats can eat thousands of insects a night, and have adapted wing shape and size, flight muscles and movement to make hairpin turns, flips and other maneuvers to hunt insects. Corcoran and his research team, which is expected to involve UCCS graduate and undergraduate students, will compare the characteristics of different bat species and conduct simulations to test hypotheses and see how differences in physiology can impact the predator-prey outcome.

“I’ve been studying the evolutionary arms race between bats and insects for more than 15 years, and over that time I’ve been amazed both at the incredible acrobatics bats exhibit on a nightly basis and at how little scientists understand these mysterious creatures,” Corcoran said. “By focusing on bat flight, we can tie together an understanding of many areas of biology, from the morphology and anatomy of the bat flight apparatus to how and why these animals have evolved to be the dominant predators of the night skies across the globe.”

Corcoran and his team expect to develop and provide open-access computer software to help scientists studying a variety of animals to predict flight abilities in predator-prey interaction.

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