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Dragonflies on the Hunt Are Smarter Than You Think

Researchers went to great lengths to discover that dragonflies not only reacted to their prey's movements, but anticipated them computationally.
Image: Dragonfly
A composite image shows a dragonfly carrying retroreflective markers. The markers are used to measure the orientation of the dragonfly’s head and body during flight. The data from the measurements allows the underlying steering strategy to be inferred.Igor Siwanowicz / Janelia Research Campus, HHMI

To figure out how dragonflies anticipated their prey's movements during a hunt, researchers built a fruit-fly Colosseum, complete with fake scenery and high-speed cameras — and then hooked up the dragonflies with tiny versions of the reflectors used in Hollywood's motion-capture studios. The result? The scientists found that the dragonflies tracked the movements of fruit flies (and artificial flies) with sophisticated head and body motions, and then adjusted their trajectories to intercept them. In this week's issue of the journal Nature, the research team says such computational models for tracking targets have not been previously described in insects, but are similar to the neural processes seen in vertebrate animals — like us, for instance.

"This highlights the role that internal models play in letting these creatures construct such a complex behavior," senior author Anthony Leonardo, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus, said in a news release. Leonardo and his colleagues went to great lengths to build a customized fly-killing arena because dragonflies typically refuse to chase prey in controlled, indoor settings.



— Alan Boyle

The principal author of "Internal Models Direct Dragonfly Interception Steering" is Matteo Mischiati of HHMI's Janelia Research Campus. In addition to Mischiati and Leonardo, the authors include Huai-Ti Lin, Paul Herold, Elliot Imler and Robert Olberg.