11 Animals with Echolocation (Pictures Included)

Photo: Poli Pandolfi / Shutterstock

Echolocation has proven to be such a useful tool for animals that people adapted it for military use. In fact, it’s still the most used system for underwater motion detection.

However, it seems like animals have naturally developed much more sophisticated systems than us.

Let’s take a look at these amazing 11 animals with echolocation:

  • Bats
  • Dolphins
  • Killer Whales
  • Sperm Whales
  • Beluga Whales
  • Oilbirds
  • Swiftlets
  • Eurasian Common Shrew
  • Northern Short-tailed Shrew
  • Narwhals
  • Tenrecs

1. Bats

Photo: Frank Martins / Shutterstock

Scientific name (order): Chiroptera

Bat echolocation is probably the most famous type of echolocation known in the wild. These flying animals will emit echolocating signals through their larynx and listen to the echo.

Bats can immediately tell the distance between themselves and their prey based on how long it takes for the echo to return to them. They use the same method to navigate caves and forests.

On top of all that, bat ears are so sensitive that they can navigate just by listening to the sounds of the prey. Even without letting out a call for it to echo back, a bat can hear the flutter of an insect’s wings and know where it is instantly.

2. Dolphins

Bottlenose dolphin surfacing from water
Photo: Caroline Legg / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Scientific name (infraorder): Cetacea

Before sound reaches a dolphin’s ear, it has to go through a fat-filled cavity and air pockets in front of the inner ear. Because of that, dolphins can easily locate the source of the sound.

To navigate, these marine mammals let out high-pitched clicks and wait for the sound to echo back. Just like bats, they use it to locate prey, but also all other objects in their environment. These clicks are among the loudest sounds made by sea animals.

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Dolphin echolocation is very advanced because aside from getting the location, dolphins also have a clear picture of the shape and size of the object (which comes in handy for detecting predators). 

However, it is still unknown how dolphins actually get a sense of size and shape from echo.

3. Killer Whales

Photo: Poli Pandolfi / Shutterstock

Scientific name: Orcinus orca

Killer whales vocalize for both orientation and communication, using clicks to find their surroundings and locate their prey, just like dolphins. 

Unlike bats, which use their larynx, sea animals with echolocation have to move air between nasal sacs to produce sounds.

Echolocation is crucial for hunting, as killer whales often work in a team to find food. 

By using echolocation, they always know where the other whales are and where their prey is. Most hunting is done in the dark, and these animals would be blind if it weren’t for echolocation.

4. Sperm Whales

Photo: Thierry Eidenweii / Shutterstock

Scientific name: Physeter macrocephalus

Sperm whales are the biggest animals that use echolocation, and the sounds they produce are actually the most powerful sounds in the animal kingdom. The sounds can get as loud as 230 decibels (human eardrums burst at 160 decibels).

Sperm whales dive at extreme depths with absolutely no light, and echolocation isn’t only important for hunting, but for navigation in general. 

For this exact reason, they have the largest and the most powerful sound-emitting organ out of all the animals on this list.

5. Beluga Whales

Photo: Olena Svyrydova / Shutterstock

Scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas

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Beluga whales have well-developed eyesight for underwater animals, but they still use echolocation as their primary sense of orientation. With it, they find breathing holes under ice caps, other whales (they’re very social), and prey.

It’s possible that beluga whales are sea animals with the best echolocation, as they can locate a moving target and determine the distance, size, shape, the speed at which the target is swimming, and even the internal structure of the object.

6. Oilbirds

Photo: Agami Photo Agency / Shutterstock

Scientific name: Steatornis caripensis

One of the few birds that use echolocation, oilbirds are primarily nocturnal and they leave their caves at night to find fruit. They adapted their eyesight for the dark, but they also developed echolocation.

People can actually hear the click they let out to navigate in the dark. These birds don’t use their echolocating abilities to locate insects – the frequency of the click they let out is too low to locate anything smaller than an inch. 

Because of that, experts believe that they only use echolocation for navigation, not hunting.

7. Swiftlets

Photo: Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock

Scientific name (genera): Aerodramus, Hydrochous, Schoutedenapus, and Collocalia

These echolocating birds are distinguished by the unique ability they use to navigate in total darkness, just like oilbirds. 

They have developed this ability to such a degree that they can navigate through very tight crevices in complete darkness, just by using echolocation.

Additionally, they have learned to use echolocation in a group. For example, if birds hear a single bird letting out the clicks when flying, they will get out of the way. Just like with oilbirds, these clicks can be heard if you’re close enough.

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8. Eurasian Common Shrew

Photo: Karel Zahradka / Shutterstock

Scientific name: Sorex araneus

One of the very few terrestrial animals that use echolocation, these shrews were recently proven to use high-frequency sounds for close-range orientation.

This is most likely a result of evolution, as a comparison of bat, dolphin, and shrew genes suggested so. However, this is a very fresh discovery, only published in 2019, and more research is needed.

9. Northern Short-tailed Shrew

Photo: Joe McDonald / Shutterstock

Scientific name: Blarina brevicauda

This small animal has very poor senses of smell and sight, so it has to compensate with echolocation and a sense of touch. They mostly eat insects, earthworms, and even other shrews.

Most of their hunting is done after sunset, so their sight wouldn’t be too useful even if it was well-developed. The range of their echolocating ability is still unknown, as well as the specific sound they produce.

10. Narwhals

Photo: VBakunin68 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY SA 4.0

Scientific name: Monodon monoceros

The last marine mammal with echolocation on this list, narwhals are known for producing incredibly high-pitched whistles. These are mostly used for communication, while they use clicks and knocks for echolocation.

Since they only feed on fish, narwhals have to locate their prey as it’s moving and catch it as it’s fleeing. They eat prey by literally sucking it into their mouths, which means that they have to get very close to the fish to feed.

Because of this, we’re led to believe that their echolocating abilities have developed to an incredible degree.

11. Tenrecs

Photo: Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock

Scientific name (family): Tenrecidae 

These small animals, endemic to Madagascar, are one of the very few terrestrial mammals with echolocation. However, they use echolocation for communication with other tenrecs.

That way, they don’t wander off from their small groups (sometimes with more than 12 specimens) and they can avoid danger. Their whiskers are very well developed, and it’s believed that they play a great part in communication.

James Ball

James has had a lifelong passion for animals and nature, tracing back to his childhood where he first began fostering intimate knowledge and connection with pet frogs and snakes. He has since honed this interest into a career as a trained Wildlife Biologist, specializing in Biogeography, sustainability and conservation. In addition to his professional pursuits, James maintains an active lifestyle, regularly indulging in outdoor activities such as hiking, and musical pursuits like playing piano and swimming.

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