Visually mediated motor planning in the escape response of Drosophila
A key feature of reactive behaviors is the ability to spatially localize a salient stimulus and act accordingly. Such sensory-motor transformations must be particularly fast and well tuned in escape behaviors, in which both the speed and accuracy of the evasive response determine whether an animal successfully avoids predation . We studied the escape behavior of the fruit fly, Drosophila, and found that flies can use visual information to plan a jump directly away from a looming threat. This is surprising, given the architecture of the pathway thought to mediate escape [2, 3]. Using high-speed videography, we found that approximately 200 ms before takeoff, flies begin a series of postural adjustments that determine the direction of their escape. These movements position their center of mass so that leg extension will push them away from the expanding visual stimulus. These preflight movements are not the result of a simple feed-forward motor program because their magnitude and direction depend on the flies' initial postural state. Furthermore, flies plan a takeoff direction even in instances when they choose not to jump. This sophisticated motor program is evidence for a form of rapid, visually mediated motor planning in a genetically accessible model organism.
© 2008 Elsevier. Received: June 13, 2008; revised: July 9, 2008; accepted: July 10, 2008. This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (5R01DA22777-3) and the National Science Foundation (0623527) to M.H.D. The authors wish to thank Gaby Maimon and Andrew Straw for helpful discussion and Wyatt Korff for help in developing the LED lighting system.