Bat Wings and Their Special Sensory Cells

There is more to bat wings than people might think. Bats can do amazing things whilst flying, like hovering and fluttering, even dive-bombing and changing directions midair with incredible agility. One would think it impossible because bats can’t see in the dark very well. Well, not literally, their tremendous nocturnal navigation skills are owed to echolocation. However, new research has shed light upon another, less appreciated source of a bat’s amazing abilities: it’s wings.

Bat wings are not just used for flight, but for capturing prey and cuddling their bat babies as well. Which makes Chiroptera, meaning “hand-wing,” quite an appropriate scientific name.


Bat Wings Have Tiny Hairs That Touch

Bat wings have a unique touch-receptor design, researchers reported on April 30th in the journal Cell Reports. Bats are likely able to change the shape of their wings in a split second due to tiny sensory cells associated with fine hairs on their wings, which grants them the much needed midair maneuverability. Researchers did not examine the miniscule hairs on bat wings until two years ago. They recorded how the absence of these hairs influenced flight. Without these hairs, bats are not able to slow as quickly as they’d like or pull a midair turn as tight as they prefer. Some scientists already knew the importance of these hairs for flying, but this study is the first to show just how crucial those touch receptors underneath are.

Bats happen to be the only mammals that can hit speeds of 20 miles an hour since they can pull off powered flight due to their bat wings. Bats fly like birds, but have their mammalian advantages which make them dexterous demons of the night.

Researchers tracked the responses of neurons in a bat’s brain to stimulation of sensory cells called Merkel cells, which are used for fine touch, and found that neurons reacted with bursts of activity but settled down shortly after, even if the stimulation was long lasting. This means the sensory cells have adapted for speed.

Researchers have also discovered that bats are quite unusual among mammals. Bats have nerve pathways leading to both the neck and trunk. With most mammals, the hand or forelimb sends its signals to the cervical spine, in the neck, with a few nerves dipping down to the thoracic spine in the trunk. It seems this is due to part of the bat wings growing from trunk tissue during prenatal development.

Being able to understand how bats have adapted their wings for flight and other daily needs is important because the findings have the potential to inspire human engineering. Can you imagine that? Using bat wings as a reference to make aerial vehicles more maneuverable?