Echolocation signals reflect niche differentiation in five sympatric congeneric bat species


Echolocating bats can be divided into guilds according to their preferred habitat and foraging behaviour1,2,3,4, which coincide with distinct adaptations in wing morphology5 and structure of echolocation signals6. Although coarse structuring of niche space between different guilds is generally accepted, it is not clear how niches differ within guilds7,8,9,10, or whether there is fine-grained niche differentiation reflected in echolocation signal structure11,12. Using a standardized performance test, here we show clutter-dependent differences in prey-capture success for bats from five species of European Myotis. These species are morphologically similar, sympatric13, and all belong to the guild labelled “edge space aerial/trawling foragers”4. We further demonstrate a strong correlation between the prey-detection ability of the species and the respective search-call bandwidth. Our findings indicate that differences in echolocation signals contribute to within-guild niche differentiation. This is the first study relating sensory abilities of a set of potentially competing animal species to a direct measure of their respective foraging performance, suggesting an important role of sensory ecology in the structuring of animal communities.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The capture performance of bats from five sympatric Myotis species searching for prey offered at different distances from a clutter screen that mimicked a vegetation edge.
Figure 2: Representative search calls of five sympatric Myotis species in sonagram representation with time signal below and averaged power spectrum on the right.
Figure 3: Correlation of ‘minimal capture distance’ with the bandwidth of search calls for the five sympatric Myotis species.


  1. 1

    Aldridge, H. D. J. N. & Rautenbach, I. L. Morphology, echolocation and resource partitioning in insectivorous bats. J. Anim. Ecol. 56, 763–778 (1987)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Neuweiler, G. Auditory adaptations for prey capture in echolocating bats. Physiol. Rev. 70, 615–641 (1990)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Schnitzler, H.-U. & Kalko, E. K. V. Echolocation by insect-eating bats. Bioscience 51, 557–569 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Schnitzler, H.-U., Moss, C. F. & Denzinger, A. From spatial orientation to food acquisition in echolocating bats. Trends Ecol. Evol. 18, 386–394 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Norberg, U. M. & Rayner, J. M. V. Ecological morphology and flight in bats (Mammalia; Chiroptera): wing adaptations, flight performance, foraging strategy and echolocation. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 316, 335–427 (1987)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Fenton, M. B. Foraging behaviour and ecology of animal-eating bats. Can. J. Zool. 68, 411–422 (1990)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Findley, J. S. The structure of bat communities. Am. Nat. 110, 129–139 (1976)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    McKenzie, N. L. & Rolfe, J. K. Structure of bat guilds in the Kimberley mangroves, Australia. J. Anim. Ecol. 55, 401–420 (1986)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Crome, F. H. J. & Richards, G. C. Bats and gaps: microchiropteran community structure in a Queensland rain forest. Ecology 69, 1960–1969 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Sleep, D. J. H. & Brigham, R. M. An experimental test of clutter tolerance in bats. J. Mamm. 84, 216–224 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Heller, K.-G. & von Helversen, O. Resource partitioning of sonar frequency bands in rhinolophoid bats. Oecologia 80, 178–186 (1989)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Kingston, T., Jones, G., Zubaid, A. & Kunz, T. H. Resource partitioning in rhinolophoid bats revisited. Oecologia 124, 332–342 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Krapp, F. in Handbuch der Säugetiere Europas Vol. 4/I (eds Niethammer, J. & Krapp, F.) 257–442 (Aula, Wiebelsheim, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Jones, G. & Rayner, J. M. V. Flight performance, foraging tactics and echolocation in free-living Daubenton's bats Myotis daubentoni (Chiroptera: Vespertilionidae). J. Zool. 215, 113–132 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Krull, D., Schumm, A., Metzner, W. & Neuweiler, G. Foraging areas and foraging behavior in the notch-eared bat, Myotis emarginatus (Vespertilionidae). Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 28, 247–253 (1991)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Schumm, A., Krull, D. & Neuweiler, G. Echolocation in the notch-eared bat, Myotis emarginatus. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 28, 255–261 (1991)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Britton, A. R. C., Jones, G., Rayner, J. M. V., Boonman, A. M. & Verboom, B. Flight performance, echolocation and foraging behaviour in pond bats, Myotis dasycneme (Chiroptera: Vespertilionidae). J. Zool. 241, 503–522 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Siemers, B. M. & Schnitzler, H.-U. Natterer's bat (Myotis nattereri Kuhl, 1818) hawks for prey close to vegetation using echolocation signals of very broad bandwidth. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 47, 400–412 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Swift, S. M. & Racey, P. A. Gleaning as a foraging strategy in Natterer's bat Myotis nattereri. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 52, 408–416 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Fenton, M. B. & Bogdanowicz, W. Relationships between external morphology and foraging behaviour: bats in the genus Myotis. Can. J. Zool. 80, 1004–1013 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Arlettaz, R., Jones, G. & Racey, P. A. Effect of acoustic clutter on prey detection by bats. Nature 414, 742–745 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Siemers, B. M., Stilz, P. & Schnitzler, H.-U. The acoustic advantage of hunting at low heights above water: behavioural experiments on the European ’trawling’ bats Myotis capaccinii, M. dasycneme and M. daubentonii. J. Exp. Biol. 204, 3843–3854 (2001)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Harvey, P. H. & Pagel, M. D. The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Biology 138–162 (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1991)

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Ruedi, M. & Mayer, F. Molecular systematics of bats of the genus Myotis (Vespertilionidae) suggests deterministic ecomorphological convergences. Mol. Phyl. Evol. 21, 436–448 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Simmons, J. A. & Stein, R. A. Acoustic imaging in bat sonar: Echolocation signals and the evolution of echolocation. J. Comp. Physiol. A 135, 61–84 (1980)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    von Helversen, O. & von Helversen, D. Acoustic guide in bat pollinated flower. Nature 398, 759–760 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Schmidt, S., Hanke, S. & Pillat, J. The role of echolocation in the hunting of terrestrial prey—new evidence for an underestimated strategy in the gleaning bat, Megaderma lyra. J. Comp. Physiol. A 186, 975–988 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Morse, P. M. & Ingard, K. U. Theoretical Acoustics (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 1986)

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Kingston, T., Jones, G., Akbar, Z. & Kunz, T. H. Echolocation signal design in Kerivoulinae and Murinae (Chiroptera: Vespertilionidae) from Malaysia. J. Zool. 249, 359–374 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Müller, R. & Kuc, R. Foliage echoes: A probe into the ecological acoustics of bat echolocation. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 108, 836–845 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank all those who assisted with fieldwork. We also thank A. Boonman, A. Denzinger, J. Ostwald, D. Menne, E. Müller, P. Pilz, M. Sánchez-Villagra and P. Stilz for discussions, H. Harty for language assistance and B. Fenton for comments. Our research was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and a PhD scholarship by Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes to B.M.S.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Björn M. Siemers.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Methods

Details of how we built a successful logistic model using raw data for all individual bats to corroborate the relationship between capture success and search call bandwidth that we had found by regression analysis using species means. (PDF 87 kb)

Supplementary Figure

The individual capture performances of the bats we used in our experiments. Even on the individual level there is nearly no overlap between the performances of the five bat species. (PDF 71 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Siemers, B., Schnitzler, H. Echolocation signals reflect niche differentiation in five sympatric congeneric bat species. Nature 429, 657–661 (2004).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing