Sep. 6, 2011 at 3:24 PM ET
Tiny and lightweight GPS units are giving researchers a new way to track small critters, a breakthrough that could open our eyes anew on the mysterious wonders of nature.
For example, a team of Israeli researchers recently outfitted Egyptian fruit bats with GPS units that weigh less than a half ounce (10 grams) to gain clues on how the free-ranging mammals find their way around each night to feed at specific trees, often dozens of miles away from their caves.
The tiny GPS units allowed the researchers to step outside the lab and conduct experiments in the complex landscape the animals navigate on a nightly basis.
Their findings show the mammals carry around an internal cognitive map of their home range based on visual landmarks such as lights or hills, according to a paper in the August 15 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Although lab experiments based on distances of a meter or two had hinted at the existence of an internal map for navigation, this study is the first to show that such mammals as fruit bats use these maps to find their way around areas 100 km in size," notes a press release on the study.
But as the systems get smaller, smaller animals can be studied with GPS, which might be easier than the currently available radio transmitters used to track the movements of critters such as dragonflies and songbirds.
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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com.