In the course of their lives, most animals must find different specific habitat and microhabitat types for survival and reproduction. Yet, in vertebrates, little is known about the sensory cues that mediate habitat recognition. In free flying bats the echolocation of insect-sized point targets is well understood, whereas how they recognize and classify spatially extended echo targets is currently unknown. In this study, we show how echolocating bats recognize ponds or other water bodies that are crucial for foraging, drinking and orientation. With wild bats of 15 different species (seven genera from three phylogenetically distant, large bat families), we found that bats perceived any extended, echo-acoustically smooth surface to be water, even in the presence of conflicting information from other sensory modalities. In addition, naive juvenile bats that had never before encountered a water body showed spontaneous drinking responses from smooth plates. This provides the first evidence for innate recognition of a habitat cue in a mammal.