Flight control of fruit flies: dynamic response to optic-flow and headwind.

Research paper by Kiaran K K KK Lawson, Mandyam V MV Srinivasan

Indexed on: 21 Mar '17Published on: 21 Mar '17Published in: The Journal of experimental biology


Insects are magnificent fliers that are capable of performing many complex tasks such as speed regulation, smooth landings, and collision avoidance, even though their computational abilities are limited by their small brain. To investigate how flying insects respond to changes in wind speed and surrounding optic flow, the open-loop sensorimotor response of female Queensland fruit flies (Bactrocera tryoni) was examined. 136 flies were exposed to stimuli comprising sinusoidally varying optic flow and air flow (simulating forward movement) under tethered conditions in a virtual reality arena. Two responses were measured: the thrust, and the abdomen pitch. The dynamics of the responses to optic flow and air flow were measured at various frequencies, and modelled as a multicompartment linear system, which accurately captures the fruit flies' behavioural responses. The results indicate that these two behavioural responses are concurrently sensitive to changes of optic flow as well as wind. The abdomen pitch showed a streamlining response, where the abdomen was raised higher as the magnitude of either stimulus was increased. The thrust, on the other hand, exhibited a counter-phase response where maximum thrust occurred when the optic flow or wind flow was at a minimum, indicating that the flies were attempting to maintain an ideal flight speed. When the changes in the wind and optic flow were in phase (i.e. did not contradict each other), the net responses (thrust and abdomen pitch) were well approximated by an equally weighted sum of the responses to the individual stimuli. However, when the optic flow and wind stimuli were presented in counterphase, the flies seemed to respond to only one stimulus or the other, demonstrating a form of 'selective attention'.