'We Put the Lab on the Bat': Tiny Device Changes the Face of Biological Research

How a miniaturized set of sensors won Israeli scientists the Blavatnik prize for life sciences, and allows for the study of 'freely behaving animals'

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Egyptian fruit bats enjoying a meal of dried fruit in Kuwait, this week.
Egyptian fruit bats enjoying a meal of dried fruit in Kuwait, this week.Credit: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT - AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Studying animals in the lab is, by definition, an exercise in scientific frustration. No matter what you do, animals will not exhibit their full repertoire of behavior under lab conditions. But studying them in the wild involves a whole host of other difficulties, especially when it comes to creatures that fly. Flap all you want, but you won’t be able to track and observe foraging fruit bats in the wild.

Now, a breakthrough device invented to solve that very problem – to study fruit bats (and those of other gastronomic predilections) in the wild – has earned Prof. Yossi Yovel of Tel Aviv University a prestigious prize.

The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in Israel recognize the most promising academic staff in the country, the organization explains. The prizes are awarded in three areas: life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and chemistry.

Prof. Yossi Yovel: 'We put the lab on the bat, instead of putting the bat into the lab.'Credit:

Yovel was selected as the 2021 recipient in the category of Life Sciences. This year’s other laureates are Prof. Ido Kaminer from the Physical Sciences & Engineering department at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, for creative ways of generating light, X-rays, and other types of radiation from the interaction of electrons with novel materials; and Prof. Rafal Klajn of the Weizmann Institute, for creating dynamic nanomaterials that react to external stimuli, and designing nanostructures to probe chemical reactions in confined spaces.

As the fruit bat flies

Yovel’s achievement enables scientists to study even quite small animals, like bats, in their natural environment, known as “freely behaving animals.” It is a marvel of miniaturization: a sensor attached to the bat’s furry little back, weighing no more than 1.5 to 2 grams, but capable of incorporating a vast range of tools.

“Our mini sensor includes GPS, to see where the animal is, and an array of other sensors – we have microphones, an ECG recorder, a heartbeat recorder, an accelerometer. We put the lab on the bat instead of putting the bat into the lab,” Yovel tells Haaretz.

The device stands to change the very nature of biological research, which is almost entirely conducted in laboratories. Very few tools enabling researchers to “bring the lab” to the animal have been invented, he explains.

The Tel Aviv University team owes several new discoveries to this tiny bat espionage device, including how bats work in groups to improve foraging, Yovel says. They find food more efficiently when collaborating than as individuals

Scientists now know that Egyptian fruit bats form mental maps of their environment, thanks to Yovel's mini sensor array.Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science

The scientists also managed to study how newborn Egyptian fruit bats, which may fly many kilometers from their home cave or parking garage, navigate and mentally map their environment. The Tel Aviv scientists tracked 22 bat pups using this smallest GPS device in the world, as they scoured the city for food, solving what had previously been a profound mystery. The bats were clearly creating mental maps of landmarks based on unique buildings such as the Azrieli Towers and Dizengoff Center, the team reported.

In another groundbreaking discovery, the team looked into sensory interference in the mousetail bat, to elucidate whether these bats disturb one another with their sonar squeaking. Mousetail bats fly in vast swarms and could theoretically jam each other’s frequencies.

“It’s like humans at a cocktail party,” Yovel explains: “You are trying to focus on one voice but you hear them all.”

And what did they find? Bats are indeed marvels. The team discovered that the mousetails did not jam each other and figured out how they solved the interference problem, he says.

“We used a sophisticated model to show the problem isn’t as bad as one might think. But we couldn’t have done it without the highly accurate data we collected on the miniature bat sensors,” he explains.

Asked why the navigation study looked at fruit bats but the sonar anti-jamming research examined mousetail bats, Yovel explained that Egyptian fruit bats rely more heavily on their vision. While they do employ sonar, it is in a different way and interference is not a problem for them, as it theoretically should be for the mousetail.

While theory of mind in fruit and mousetail bats is indeed fascinating, the team’s work has “real-world” applications as well. Humankind may be able to employ the bats’ anti-jamming technique in technologies like those used in autonomous cars. Imagine a highway thronged with electronic beasts all transmitting at the same frequency. Humans may one day have the mousetail bat to thank for avoiding a pileup.

You may, one day, have the mousetail bat to thank for avoiding a traffic accident.Credit: Ishika Ramakrishna/Wikimedia Commons

Yovel, a member of the Young Scientists organization, will collect the $100,000 prize at an August 1 gala at The Israel Museum. 

The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists were established in New York in 2007 by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and began as the Blavatnik Regional Awards for Young Scientists in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. In 2014 the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists were established and expanded to honor faculty scientists across the United States. In 2017, the Blavatnik Awards expanded to the UK and Israel, the organization stated.

Scientists aged 42 years and younger are eligible to be nominated  for the prize by their participating academic institutions, the organization explained. There are age-limit exceptions, but they are evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the Blavatnik Family Foundation, and only for exceptional circumstances, the organization stated.

“The idea for the award was born in 2007 when I attended the Nobel prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. I was inspired to create something similar to provide outstanding young scientists with financial support and recognition much earlier in their careers and help to further their potential to develop into Nobel-prize-level scientists,” Len Blavatnik, head of the family foundation and chairman of Access Industries, told Haaretz.

The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities – a body that advises the government on sciences and humanities – will also be holding a reception and symposium on August 2 in honor of both the 2021 award winners, and the 2020 award winners, who were denied the requisite ceremony last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And what will Yossi do with the prize money? “I have no idea,” he says. “I will definitely throw a party for the lab that contributed the data and work.”

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