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Published January 10, 2012 | public
Journal Article Open

Flying Drosophila Orient to Sky Polarization


Insects maintain a constant bearing across a wide range of spatial scales. Monarch butterflies and locusts traverse continents [[1] and [2]], and foraging bees and ants travel hundreds of meters to return to their nests [[1], [3] and [4]], whereas many other insects fly straight for only a few centimeters before changing direction. Despite this variation in spatial scale, the brain region thought to underlie long-distance navigation is remarkably conserved [[5] and [6]], suggesting that the use of a celestial compass is a general and perhaps ancient capability of insects. Laboratory studies of Drosophila have identified a local search mode in which short, straight segments are interspersed with rapid turns [[7] and [8]]. However, this flight mode is inconsistent with measured gene flow between geographically separated populations [[9], [10] and [11]], and individual Drosophila can travel 10 km across desert terrain in a single night [[9], [12] and [13]]—a feat that would be impossible without prolonged periods of straight flight. To directly examine orientation behavior under outdoor conditions, we built a portable flight arena in which a fly viewed the natural sky through a liquid crystal device that could experimentally rotate the polarization angle. Our findings indicate that Drosophila actively orient using the sky's natural polarization pattern.

Additional Information

© 2012 Elsevier Ltd. Received: October 21, 2011; Revised: November 10, 2011; Accepted: November 10, 2011; Published online: December 15, 2011. We thank Marie P. Suver for contributing to a set of preliminary experiments and useful conversations throughout the project. This work was supported by a National Science Foundation FIBR award 0623527 (M.H.D.) and a National Institutes of Health training grant 5-T32-MH019138 (P.T.W.).

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August 19, 2023
August 19, 2023