Active sensory systems

Active sensory systems

Active sensory systems are sensory receptors that are activated by probing the environment with self-generated energy. Examples include echolocation of bats and dolphins and insect antennae. Using self-generated energy allows more control over signal intensity, direction, timing and spectral characteristics. By contrast, passive sensory systems involve activation by ambient energy. For example, human vision relies on using light from environment instead of generating own source.

Active sensory systems receive information with or without direct contact. Teleceptive Active Sensory Systems collect information by directing propagating energy and detecting objects using cues such as time delay and intensity of return signal. Examples include echolocation of bats and electrosensory detection of electric fish. Contact Active Sensory Systems use physical contact between stimuli and organism. Insect antennae and whiskers are examples of contact active sensory systems.

Examples of Active Sensory Systems

Active Electrolocation

# Bioluminescence Adult firefly uses self-generated light to locate mates. In deep oceans, barbeled dragonfish produces near infrared light [1] .
# Electrostatic field Electric fishes probe the environment and create active hydrodynamic imaging [2] .


#Active touching Nocturnal animals depend on whiskers to navigate by gathering information about position, size, shape, orientation and texture of objects. Insects use antennae to probe the environment during locomotion. Human's reaching out to objects with hands is an analogy.

= Echolocation=

#Echolocation Active acoustic sensing of self-produced sounds. Bats emit echolocation calls for detecting prey in flight. Dolphins and killer-whales use echolocation in water.


#Because propagation of chemicals take longer than other sources, only organisms with slow locomotion can utilize chemical signals to probe the environment. An example how slime mold Dictyostelium uses ammonia to probe the environment to avoid obstacles during formation of fruiting body. Deploying chemical signal is also limited by lack of return signals [3] .

Physical and Ecological Constraints

Energy Propagation

An important constraint in teleceptive active sensory systems is generating energy with return signal above threshold of detection. Self-generated energy needs to be strong enough to detect objects at a distance. Due to geometric spreading, energy emitted uniformly will spread over a sphere of increasing surface area. Signal strength depends on the square of distance between organism and target. In teleceptive active sensing, geometric spread cost is doubled, because signal is emitted and returned. As a result, fraction of energy returned is only a fourth power of the distance between organism and target.

Directionality also plays a role in energy expenditure in producing signals. Increase in directionality and narrow range result in longer attenuation length. Bat has a wider detection range to target small insects flying at high velocity. Dolphin produces a more narrow echolocation beam which propagates further. Electric fishes emit signals that envelope the whole body, thus has shorter length.


In addition to geometric spreading, absorption and scattering of energy during propagation results in the loss of energy. The attenuation length is the distance at which intensity drops to 1/e(37%) to initial intensity. Environmental factors such as fog, rain and turbulence disturb signal transmission and decreases attenuation length.

Length of Appendages

For contact sensory system, only targets within reach of contact appendages are detectable. Increase in length of appendages adds physical energy costs by adding weight during locomotion and investment for growth. As a compromise, whiskers of rats cover only the 35% of body. To minimize cost, rhythmic movements are coupled with stepping mechanisms of insects [4] .


Energy released into the environment by organisms is prone to detection by other organisms. The detection by predators and competing individuals of same species provides a strong evolutionary pressure. When active sensing is used, energy detected at target is greater than returning signal. Prey or predators evolved to eavesdrop on active sensing signals. For example, most flying insect preys of bats developed sensitivity to echolocation call frequency. When stimulated by a high-pitched sound, moths engage in dodging flight pathway. Dolphins can also detect killer whales' ultrasonic clicks. In return, killer whales produce more irregular, isolated sonar clicks to make less conspicuous signals [4] . In case of barbeled dragonfish, it utilizes red light that other deep-sea fishes can't detect [5] .

Related Concepts

Corollary Discharge refers to the ability to differentiate one's own movements and responses to external motor events. Orientation and actions are mapped on neuronal level and remembered in the brain. Corollary discharge allows one to incorporate sensory intake as a result of sensory system and serves as a feedback system.

Jamming Avoidance Response Conspecific signals interfere active sensing of individuals sharing habitats. Electric fishes such as Eigenmannia developed reflexive shift in discharge frequencies in order to avoid frequency interference.

ee also


Sensory system



[1] Douglas RH, Partridge JC, Dulai K, Hunt D, Mullineaux CW,Tauber A, Hynninen PH (1998) Dragon fish see using chlorophyll. Nature 393:423–424 [2] Montgomery JC, Coombs S, Baker CF (2001) The mechanosensory lateral line system of the hypogean form of Astyanax fasciatus. Env Biol Fish 62:87–96 [3] Bonner JT, Suthers HB, Odell GM (1986) Ammonia orients cell masses and speeds up aggregating cells of slime molds. Nature 323:630–632Hartmann MJ, Johnson NJ, Towal RB, Assad C (2003) Mechanical characteristics of rat vibrissae: resonant frequencies and amping in isolated whiskers and in the awake behaving animal. J Neurosci 23:6510–6519 [4] Nelson, M.E., MacIver, M.A. (2006), Sensory Acquisition in Active Sensing Systems. J Comp Physiology A 192: 573-586. []
[5] Douglas RH, Partridge JC (1997) On the visual pigments of deepsea fish. J Fish Biol 50:68–85

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