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Published February 2019 | Published
Journal Article Open

Celestial navigation in Drosophila


Many casual observers typecast Drosophila melanogaster as a stationary pest that lurks around fruit and wine. However, the omnipresent fruit fly, which thrives even in desert habitats, likely established and maintained its cosmopolitan status via migration over large spatial scales. To perform long-distance dispersal, flies must actively maintain a straight compass heading through the use of external orientation cues, such as those derived from the sky. In this Review, we address how D. melanogaster accomplishes long-distance navigation using celestial cues. We focus on behavioral and physiological studies indicating that fruit flies can navigate both to a pattern of linearly polarized light and to the position of the sun – the same cues utilized by more heralded insect navigators such as monarch butterflies and desert ants. In both cases, fruit flies perform menotaxis, selecting seemingly arbitrary headings that they then maintain over time. We discuss how the fly's nervous system detects and processes this sensory information to direct the steering maneuvers that underlie navigation. In particular, we highlight recent findings that compass neurons in the central complex, a set of midline neuropils, are essential for navigation. Taken together, these results suggest that fruit flies share an ancient, latent capacity for celestial navigation with other insects. Furthermore, they illustrate the potential of D. melanogaster to help us to elucidate both the cellular basis of navigation and mechanisms of directed dispersal on a landscape scale.

Additional Information

© 2019 Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd. We thank Peter Weir for comments on the manuscript. The authors declare no competing or financial interests. This work was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation (IOS 1547918), National Institutes of Health (U19NS104655) and the Simons Foundation (71582123) to M.H.D., as well as a National Institutes of Health NRSA postdoctoral fellowship (F32GM109777) to Y.M.G. Deposited in PMC for release after 12 months.

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August 22, 2023
August 22, 2023