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Fly PI

Path Integration (PI) in insects is usually talked about because of the amazing navigational feats of desert ants or because of the communication of PI information by waggle dancing honeybees. The foragers of the social insect species seem to be hogging the limelight. But PI is a much more widespread navigational strategy, classic behavioural experiments long ago demonstrated PI in invertebrates such as spiders and crabs. Now we can add fruit flies to the list. Using very neat behavioural experiments, Kim and Dickinson observe a foraging behaviour in flies, where individuals will return to a food location periodically. If the food is moved after the first visit, then flies return to the erstwhile food position not the new food position. This suggests that flies are not detecting the food directly to relocate it. The potential use of deposited pheromones was controlled for by genetically knocking out the oenocytes, which produce cuticular pheromones. This leaves two options, flies might be using a PI mechanism to periodically return to the food or they might be simply be undertaking a random walk, that occasionally leads them back to the food location. By analysing the statistics of turns, Kim and Dickinson show it is likely to be the former, specifically as turn sizes depend on the distance from the food and the distance walked since the last turn.
The demonstration that flies perform some form of Path Integration will of course excite those who will wish to use genetic tools to pick apart neural machinery. Another exciting implication, indeed one which the authors stress, is that this reinforces the idea that path integration is part of a fundamental spatial toolkit that is likely to be widespread across animal taxa.
Kim and Dickinson, Idiothetic Path Integration in the Fruit Fly Drosophila melanogaster, Current Biology (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.06.026
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Categories: Papers from 2017
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