Real-life spatial behaviors are complex. To study the neural mechanisms that support ethologically relevant forms of navigation we utilize an exquisite aerial navigator – the bat, and study its relevant neural circuits using a combination of cutting-edge behavioral and neurophysiological methodologies. At the behavioral level, we developed a fully automated flight room where either a single bat or multiple bats can engage in natural and unconstrained forms of navigation. Utilizing an array of high-speed video cameras, real-time tracking systems and ultrasonic microphones we can carefully monitor the position, motion and sensory signals of the navigating bats at fine spatial and temporal resolutions (see movie below). We combine this with the establishment of wireless neural recordings methods in single (Yartsev & Ulanovsky, Science, 2013) and multi-animal (Zhang & Yartsev, Cell, 2019) settings as well as with our recent establishment of wireless calcium imaging methods in freely flying bats. We further incorporate our recent establishment of causal manipulation tools, such as optogenetics, in bats which allow us to begin addressing the necessity and sufficiency of neural circuits during complex spatial behaviors. Combining these approaches, we aim to study how mammalian neural circuits participate and contribute to complex spatial behaviors at both the individual and group level.
Acoustic Communication and Vocal Learning
Acoustic communication between individuals is necessary for survival. Under natural conditions, such interactions are usually bidirectional, employ the usage of diverse species-specific communication signals and often occur between individuals of varying social bonds. Further, in the case of humans, the acoustic signals that are used for communication (language) are learned - a feature that is not shared by the vast majority of mammals, including our closest non-human primate relatives and all standard laboratory mammals, such as rats and mice.
We choose to use bats because they possess a rare combination of acoustic abilities that are advantageous for studying the neural mechanisms underlying real-life acoustic communication.
In detail, our species of bats possess a rich and diverse vocabulary of different acoustic communication signals that are used during social interactions between individuals. Further, unlike the overwhelming majority of non-human mammals, the bat vocalizations are not innate but rather believed to be learned from conspecifics. The vocal learning abilities of bats allows us to study the detailed mammalian neural circuits supporting this core human function.
Building on our recent development of behavioral and neurophysiological methods in bats we now aim to take advantage of their extraordinary acoustic abilities to understand how these signals are learned and then used under natural conditions.
Miniaturized Wireless Electrophysiology
Circuit Mapping Using Tracing and Molecular Methods
Miniaturized Calcium Imaging
We are grateful for the generous support of our research through the following organizations: