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Published May 1, 2009 | Published + Supplemental Material
Journal Article Open

Wing and body motion during flight initiation in Drosophila revealed by automated visual tracking


The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster is a widely used model organism in studies of genetics, developmental biology and biomechanics. One limitation for exploiting Drosophila as a model system for behavioral neurobiology is that measuring body kinematics during behavior is labor intensive and subjective. In order to quantify flight kinematics during different types of maneuvers, we have developed a visual tracking system that estimates the posture of the fly from multiple calibrated cameras. An accurate geometric fly model is designed using unit quaternions to capture complex body and wing rotations, which are automatically fitted to the images in each time frame. Our approach works across a range of flight behaviors, while also being robust to common environmental clutter. The tracking system is used in this paper to compare wing and body motion during both voluntary and escape take-offs. Using our automated algorithms, we are able to measure stroke amplitude, geometric angle of attack and other parameters important to a mechanistic understanding of flapping flight. When compared with manual tracking methods, the algorithm estimates body position within 4.4±1.3% of the body length, while body orientation is measured within 6.5±1.9 deg. (roll), 3.2±1.3 deg. (pitch) and 3.4±1.6 deg. (yaw) on average across six videos. Similarly, stroke amplitude and deviation are estimated within 3.3 deg. and 2.1 deg., while angle of attack is typically measured within 8.8 deg. comparing against a human digitizer. Using our automated tracker, we analyzed a total of eight voluntary and two escape take-offs. These sequences show that Drosophila melanogaster do not utilize clap and fling during take-off and are able to modify their wing kinematics from one wingstroke to the next. Our approach should enable biomechanists and ethologists to process much larger datasets than possible at present and, therefore, accelerate insight into the mechanisms of free-flight maneuvers of flying insects.

Additional Information

© 2009 The Company of Biologists Ltd. Accepted 17 January 2009. The authors would like to thank Gwyneth Card, who recorded all video illustrated in Results and made her customized manual tracking software and body kinematic data (Card and Dickinson, 2008) readily available. Will Dickson provided the digitized surface points of a Drosophila body and wings that were used to construct the generative model. We also thank the Beckman Institute of Caltech for providing financial support for this project. This work was also supported by an NSF FIBR grant (0623527) to M.H.D.

Attached Files

Published - Fontaine2009p4511J_Exp_Biol.pdf

Supplemental Material - Fontaine2009p4511J_Exp_Biol_mov1.mov

Supplemental Material - Fontaine2009p4511J_Exp_Biol_mov2.mov

Supplemental Material - Fontaine2009p4511J_Exp_Biol_mov3.mov

Supplemental Material - Fontaine2009p4511J_Exp_Biol_mov4.mov


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August 21, 2023
August 21, 2023