Animals that Use Echolocation

Animals that use echolocation

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The way that many animals navigate the world is vastly different from humans, and incredibly interesting. For example, many species use echolocation, which allows them to identify objects and know their location.

Bats and dolphins are among some of the most well-known animals to use echolocation, but there are many more. Keep reading to meet some of these amazing creatures and get a better understanding of this unique adaptation.

What is Echolocation?

How echolocation works

Sometimes called biosonar, echolocation is a technique that many animal species use to help them locate food, communicate, and navigate the world around them. The benefit of this technique is that animals are able to move around even when they are in total darkness.

The way that it works is the animal will emit a call which then bounces off of a nearby object, whether that be a predator, a food source, an obstacle, or anything else. These calls then reverberate, or echo, back to the animal, which can then determine everything it needs to know about what’s in front of it.

What Animals Use Echolocation?

Even if you’re a total newcomer to the concept of echolocation, you’re probably familiar with some of the animals that use it. Things like whales and dolphins are renowned for their sonar abilities, as are animals such as bats. However, there are also plenty of other, lesser-known creatures that benefit from the use of this technique. Let’s get to know them a little better.


Ultrasound calls emitted by bats in order to use echolocation are usually far above the hearing range of a human being.

There are around 1400 species of bats in the world and as many as 1000 of these use echolocation. Bats use this technique to map out the world around them as well as for locating food such as insects.

The ultrasound calls emitted by bats in order to use echolocation are usually far above the hearing range of a human being and are incredibly high-pitched. What’s more, there are some species of bats that are so loud, their calls are intolerable to human ears. 

When they emit these chirps and calls, they will do so in varying frequencies and patterns to get the most accurate echo of their surroundings. These variations allow the bat to determine the shape and size of an object as well as how near or far away it is.

Different bats may emit their calls in different ways, but one of the most interesting is the Old World leaf-nosed bat which uses its nostrils to produce the calls. Scientists suggest that the nasal adaptations of the flower-like appendages of these bats are directly linked to their echolocation calls

While there are around 18 families of Old World leaf-nosed bats, the most common is the Hipposideridae genus which is made up of around 76 species.

You may have heard the saying as blind as a bat but this is quite misleading since bats are not actually blind. They do have limited vision compared to humans. However, many of their ancestors would have had incredibly small eyes so it’s thought that these creatures adapted their large ears to better pick up on echolocation calls rather than relying on sight alone.


Bottlenose dolphins are among some of the most notable species to use echolocation.

Did you know that sound travels four times faster in water than it does through the air? This is one of the reasons that dolphins can use echolocation so efficiently and precisely. In fact, they are so exact in their abilities that they are able to detect an object the size of a tin of tuna as far as two football pitches away. What’s more, it’s been suggested that a dolphin would be able to differentiate between a ping pong ball and a golf ball based solely on its density.

So how have dolphins become so good at using echolocation? Well, it’s all in their anatomy. Bottlenose dolphins are among some of the most notable species to use echolocation and they do so in order to navigate their way through the sometimes dark and murky waters of the ocean.

These dolphins use their nasal passages to emit clicking sounds which are so short they only last 100 milliseconds. However, when released in a series, they are very effective for communication; mother dolphins will use these clicks to ‘talk’ to her young. Bottlenose dolphins also use whistles to communicate and these are unique to each individual. In fact, marine biologists have been able to match these signature whistles to individual dolphins with no problem at all.

When the clicks are emitted, they pass through the ‘melon’ of the dolphin’s head so that they become focused toward the object the dolphin wishes to ‘see.’ They are then reflected back to the animal whose jaw contains fatty cavities which receives the information back.

Orcas are commonly mistaken as a whale species, owing to their common name the killer whale. However, these animals in fact belong to the dolphin family and also use ultrasonic sounds for echolocation. These giant aquatic mammals are able to detect objects as far away as 500 feet including individual fish!


Species such as the sperm whale and beluga whale, as well as the narwhal, all use echolocation.

Scientists have discovered as many as 27,000 different sounds from deep ocean whales, and it’s thought that they produce these by emitting small puffs of air. However, it is only toothed whales and not baleen whales that can do this and rely on echolocation to help them see the world around them. 

Species such as the sperm whale and beluga whale, as well as the narwhal, all use echolocation. In much the same way as dolphins, these animals do so to locate food and map out their surroundings.

Interestingly, it appears that whales have evolved a unique head shape that helps them in their echolocation. Researchers have been examining the heads of ancient whales compared with their modern cousins and have noted that ancient whales did not have the same head shape and therefore could not echolocate. They did, however, have a wonky nose, which scientists believed was used to help them hear.

Toothed whales rely on echolocation to help them see the world around them.
Achat1999 / Wikimedia Common / CC BY-SA 4.0

Modern whales, however, have a head that is filled, in part by fatty tissues, with the organs being ‘squashed’ over to the other side. These fatty tissues are much the same as what is found in the dolphin’s lower jaw and aid the animal in receiving the echos from their calls. This fatty tissue creates a lumpy section of the head which is fondly referred to as the melon.


Swiftlets from the Aerodramus and Collocalia genera can echolocate.

A lot of people are under the impression that it is only mammals (such as whales and bats) that can echolocate, but there are several avian species that also have this ability. This includes the swiftlet.

That said, it’s important to keep in mind that not all types of swiftlet are able to echolocate; it is only those from the Aerodramus and Collocalia genera that can do this. These are cave-dwelling birds that rely on echolocation to help them find their way around dark caves; one of the reasons that bats also have this ability.

These echolocating swiftlets are only found in subtropical and tropical regions such as parts of South Asia and Oceania. In addition to their echolocation techniques, swiftlets from the Aerodramus genus are also noted for their nests which are made entirely from hardened saliva and are a delicacy in some countries, such as China.


Oilbird is another cave-dwelling species that makes use of echolocation to help it find its way around the dark cave systems.

The oilbird is another cave-dwelling species that makes use of echolocation to help it find its way around the dark cave systems in which it lives.

One of the most astonishing things about the way that the oilbird uses echolocation is how quickly it produces sounds. They make clicks that are audible to the human ear and can produce as many as 250 per second! These birds also emit chilling shrieks, which have earned them the Spanish name guácharo which means ‘wailer.’

While the oilbird does emit very rapid sounds, its echolocating skills are not as precise as something like the bat, for example. Whereas bats are able to determine smaller objects such as insects, the oilbird can only detect items that are larger than around 8 inches (20 cm). However, this does help them to locate food and prevents them from crashing into other birds in the darkness.


Tenrec uses its tongue to make the clicking sounds associated with echolocation.

Tenrecidae is a genus of animals that is endemic to the island nation of Madagascar. There is great diversity between tenrecs with some appearing more like a hedgehog while others look like shrews. There are also those that resemble mice and rats and their habitats are equally diverse with some aquatic species, some that live on the ground, and even tree dwellers.

But one thing that they all have in common is the ability to use echolocation. Unlike other animals, the tenrec uses its tongue to make the clicking sounds associated with echolocation. However, much like other animals, the tenrec does use echolocation to help it find prey.

There are also examples of some tenrecs that produce the clicking sounds by tapping their quills together. However, this doesn’t apply to all species as there are many unquilled tenrecs.


There are 24 genera of shrew but only two of them, Sorex and Blarina, are capable of using echolocation.

There are 24 genera of shrew but only two of them, Sorex and Blarina, are capable of using echolocation.

Greater white-toothed shrews have been seen in studies to alter their chittering sounds when their environment is changed. This suggests that these animals use echolocation to detect their surroundings. On top of this, it is thought that shrews may use echolocation to identify routes and obstructions through their habitat.

How shrews create the sounds for echolocation is rather unique. They click their tongues and open and close their mouths to create low-intensity sounds which are often used to locate prey.

Vietnamese Pygmy Dormouse

The Vietnamese pygmy dormouse making a series of ultrasonic sounds between 50 and 100 kHz, these are believed to be for echolocation.
Alexei V. Abramov / Wikimedia Common / CC BY 3.0

Observing the Vietnamese pygmy dormouse in the wild, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was a silent creature. However, scientists have made recordings that show these animals making a series of ultrasonic sounds between 50 and 100 kHz. These are believed to be for echolocation.

It’s amazing to think that these animals are almost completely blind. Yet they are still able to show incredible agility when navigating their surroundings thanks to this special skill. Scientists have examined the eyes of a deceased specimen to find that, not only are they very small, but the retinas feature abnormal folds that are not conducive to good vision.

What’s super special about these animals is that this is the first known arboreal mammal to use echolocation. While the sounds are very similar to those made by bats, they are indeed a lot quieter.


Animals that use echolocation - Aye-ayes

The aye-aye is an incredibly sweet-looking type of lemur. Just like other lemur species, the aye-aye is endemic to Madagascar where it has developed an astonishing ability to echolocate. But the way that they do this is far different from other animals, and one might say, a little strange.

Aye-ayes have a long middle finger on each of their front hands and this is largely used for foraging. However, it has a second use and that is tapping which they use to locate their prey.

The aye-aye taps on the trunk of a tree and presses its ear against it while rapidly tapping. The echoes that come back to it allow the animal to know whether there are insects or grubs inside.

Why Do Dolphins & Whales Get Beached If They Use Echolocation?

Why do dolphins & whales get beached?

We constantly hear stories of whales and dolphins that have become beached, and this could be fatal if they are not returned to the water in good time. But with an ability like echolocation, one would assume that these animals wouldn’t end up on the shore.

However, there are several reasons that whales and dolphins may get beached despite their clever ability to echolocate. These may include the following:

Extreme weather conditions – poor weather conditions and cold waters can cause the whales’ prey to move closer to land. This happens often in squid-filled waters when the natural current causes the water to move North. Whales will naturally follow and become too close to the land, risking being beached. Even something like the changing tide can cause whales and dolphins to become stranded close to land, eventually washing up on shore.

Sickness/injury – as whales get older, they become weaker; just like humans. But this can cause them to become beached as they lose the ability to swim for long periods of time. This weakness can also occur due to ill health, or if the whale has swallowed something it shouldn’t have. For example, there are many instances of sperm whales being beached with tummies full of plastic.

Predators – there are reports of killer whales herding their prey, often smaller whales and dolphins, towards the shoreline. In these instances, beaching is a risk.

Coastal topography – sometimes, whales and dolphins echolocation isn’t 100% reliable, and this may prevent the animal from being able to detect coastal sloping, meaning they get caught too close to shore.

While all of these reasons, among some others, commonly cause cetacean strandings, the biggest risk actually comes from humans. We have entered the oceans in various maritime vessels and this creates a noisy environment in which the echolocation sounds cannot be properly used by marine life.

Things like submarines that use sonar could disrupt whales and dolphins’s ability to use their own sonar. In fact, studies have shown that beaked whales will stop using echolocation when in the presence of navy sonar equipment which means they are then not as easily able to judge their surroundings, and this presents a risk of beaching. Since the 1960s, when the military first began using sonar, there have been as many as 12 mass strandings that line up with these military events.

Moreover, the general noise within the ocean has increased dramatically in as little as the last few decades. It’s estimated that the natural habitat of these creatures is ten times noisier than it was just a couple of decades ago. This noise pollution causes behavioral changes in whales and dolphins that could threaten their very survival.

Even the noise of passing ships can cause severe disruption to the echolocation of whales and dolphins. Not only may this affect their ability to judge their surroundings and proximity to the coast, but it can also prevent them from being able to locate prey. Over time, this poses a threat to their survival.

Can Humans Use Echolocation?

Humans are not generally evolved to use echolocation. However, there have been several reports of blind humans using this skill in order to find their way around. But unlike the animals we have discussed in this article, humans don’t have specially adapted features like fatty melon heads and the ability to emit low frequency sounds, so how do these people do it?

In fact, humans can use vocal clicks, just like our animal friends, in order to judge surroundings. This is a technique that has long been used by a guy named Daniel Kish, who was born blind. He developed this amazing technique and has spent his life teaching it to other blind people.

Other variations on the skill include the tapping on a cane, snapping the fingers, or stamping the foot. The resounding echoes are then used to judge whether there are obstacles. Kish describes how he gets flashes of ‘vision’ when using the technique that provides him with a 3D idea of what’s going on around him, including size, depth, and position. He has also noted that in many instances, he is also able to pick up on the density of an object all through the use of echolocation.

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