New research has shone light on a human ability few even know exists – echolocation using 'click' noises, similar to how bats navigate.
Echolocators are better at locating objects at a 45-degree angle, rather than straight ahead, research published this month has shown.
It builds on a previous study by the same team that found that humans can be trained to echolocate within just 10 weeks.
Known as nature's own sonar system, echolocation occurs when an animal emits a sound that bounces off objects in the environment, returning echoes that provide information about the surrounding space, ScienceAlert reports.
While echolocation is well known in whale or bat species, previous research suggested that some blind people can use click-based echolocation to judge spaces and improve their navigation skills.
The researchers, led by Dr Lore Thaler at Durham University, delved into the factors that determine how people learn this skill.
They found that both sighted and blind people can learn echolocation – and that among blind people, 83% reported better independence and wellbeing.
Echolocation performance is drastically improved at 45 degrees, where the participants can better locate targets based on echoes coming sideways, the scientists discovered.
Their findings indicate that human echolocation and human spatial hearing might be governed by different principles as normal hearing is best from straight ahead at 0 degrees and gets worse as targets move further to the side.
The researchers also characterised and analysed the clicking behaviour of the participants and found that participants made quieter clicks when they received stronger echo signals coming from sideways at a 45-degree angle.
Dr Thaler said: "There is still a lot to discover about human echolocation, and about human perceptual abilities more generally. Our findings show that there are facets of human spatial hearing that we did not know before."
The researchers further established that better human echo-localisation away from straight ahead is consistent with what has been observed in bats.
This is surprising because bats possess anatomical and neural specialisations for echolocation, which humans do not have.
The research findings shed new light on human echolocation capabilities that provide more details and useful guidance for echolocation instructors and new users where they can turn their head away to locate objects and targets more accurately.
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