Perceptual abilities of animals, like echolocating bats, are difficult to study because they challenge our understanding of non-visual senses. We used novel acoustic tomography to convert echoes into visual representations and compare these cues to traditional echo measurements. We provide a new hypothesis for the echo-acoustic basis of prey detection on surfaces. We propose that bats perceive a change in depth profile and an ‘acoustic shadow’ cast by prey. The shadow is more salient than prey echoes and particularly strong on smooth surfaces. This may explain why bats look for prey on flat surfaces like leaves using scanning behaviour. We propose that rather than forming search images for prey, whose characteristics are unpredictable, predators may look for disruptions to the resting surface (acoustic shadows). The fact that the acoustic shadow is much fainter on rougher resting surfaces provides the first empirical evidence for ‘acoustic camouflage’ as an anti-predator defence mechanism.