Creature comforts

Underestimate the power of elves and bats at your own risk 

May 05, 2015

On the rocks
A road construction project in Iceland has been held up for over a year by the Supreme Court after protestors warned that it would disturb the elves living in its path.
The road was to provide a direct route from the Alf-tanes penin-sula (where, coincidentally, Iceland’s pres-i-dent has a home) to a suburb of Reyk-javik, Iceland’s capital and largest city. 
Opponents of the plan argued that the road would disturb a lava field believed by many to be the home of a whole community of “Huldufólk,” the Icelandic term for “the hidden people.”
The Huldufólk enjoy a surprising amount of support within the island country. Surveys have found that more than half of Icelanders either believe in elves or in the possibility of their existence. 
Of course, these elves aren’t miniature pointy-eared toymakers or bearded garden dwellers. According to folklore, Huldufólk are actually the same size as people, just invisible to the majority of us who don’t have special powers.
One person who does, though, is local “seer” Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, who was able to mediate a solution with the government this spring after being summoned by the elves to discuss the predicament.  
She said that of particular concern to the elves was a 12-ft-long jagged rock considered to be the legendary elf chapel known as Ófeigskirkja. 
“The elves told me that Ófeigskirkja had been used as a bea-con guid-ing peo-ple through the lava, and the rock was right there, in the path-way of the new road to be con-structed,” Jonsdottir told the Morgunbladid Daily. 
So she wrote a letter to the mayor on be-half of the elves. As a result, “Ófeigskirkja will now be moved to a place near other el-ven abodes in har-mony with the wishes of the elves,” she told the newspaper.
The Ice-landic Road Ad-min-is-tra-tion won’t admit the cost of relocating the rock, but did say that it weighs 70 tons and that they had to hire a crane to move it in two parts. The relocation took place in this past March.
Jonsdottir is satisfied with the compromise, telling Morgunbladid that with 11⁄2 years to prepare for their chapel’s relocation, the elves will be happy in their new surroundings.
Right off the bat
New research shows that bats follow special “traffic rules” to avoid bumping into each other while flying. 
A team of researchers from the University of Bristol discovered that bats are able to interpret sonar calls from other bats and make split-second decisions to prevent midair collisions. 
Despite the misconception that bats are, well, blind as a bat, they actually can see almost as well as humans. But just like humans, they also have trouble seeing in the dark, which doesn’t work out so well with their nocturnal hunting habits. 
Fortunately bats also come equipped with an additional perceptual system called echolocation, which is similar to sonar.
While flying, bats make high frequency calls at a rate of 160 per second. By listening to the returning echoes and determining how long they take to arrive, they’re able to build a detailed sonic map of their surroundings. This allows bats to detect, locate and even identify objects or prey in complete darkness while flying at speeds of up to 40 mph.
Researchers found that bats also use this technique to hunt in tandem without bumping into each other.
When a bat would come within earshot of another bat, the team observed that it would change direction and copy the flight direction of that bat, within four to five of its wingbeats. By following the sounds of the leader bat, a position the bats switch chase to chase, they’re able to hunt in tandem while avoiding collisions.
“Quantifying the movement decisions that bats adopt to forage has implications well beyond animal ecology,” co-author Luca Giuggioli wrote.
In particular, researchers wonder if these movement strategies could be used to improve the development of autonomous vehicles. 
Most of the world’s major automakers are currently developing autonomous technology, though Google may actually be leading the pack, claiming that their self-driving car will be ready for commercial sale within the next five years.
But now with the aid of bat-based technology to avoid accidents, perhaps we could be on our way to the first true Batmobile. R&B

David Matthews

David Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news for his Roads Report column since 2000. The stories are all true.

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