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Published September 14, 2010 | public
Journal Article Open

Visual Control of Altitude in Flying Drosophila


Unlike creatures that walk, flying animals need to control their horizontal motion as well as their height above the ground. Research on insects, the first animals to evolve flight, has revealed several visual reflexes that are used to govern horizontal course. For example, insects orient toward prominent vertical features in their environment [1], [2], [3], [4] and [5] and generate compensatory reactions to both rotations [6] and [7] and translations [1], [8], [9], [10] and [11] of the visual world. Insects also avoid impending collisions by veering away from visual expansion [9], [12], [13] and [14]. In contrast to this extensive understanding of the visual reflexes that regulate horizontal course, the sensory-motor mechanisms that animals use to control altitude are poorly understood. Using a 3D virtual reality environment, we found that Drosophila utilize three reflexes—edge tracking, wide-field stabilization, and expansion avoidance—to control altitude. By implementing a dynamic visual clamp, we found that flies do not regulate altitude by maintaining a fixed value of optic flow beneath them, as suggested by a recent model [15]. The results identify a means by which insects determine their absolute height above the ground and uncover a remarkable correspondence between the sensory-motor algorithms used to regulate motion in the horizontal and vertical domains.

Additional Information

© 2010 Elsevier Ltd. Received 18 May 2010; revised 11 June 2010; accepted 7 July 2010. Published online: August 19, 2010. Available online 19 August 2010. We thank Sawyer Fuller for assistance in the construction of the projection and mirror system and Figure 1A, as well as Gaby Maimon for providing valuable comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR, FA9550-06-1-0079) and Army Research Office (DAAD 19-03-D-0004) to M.H.D., as well as AFOSR (FA9550-10-1-0085) to A.D.S.

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August 19, 2023
August 19, 2023