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Complex behavior and perception in Drosophila emerges from iterative feedback-regulated reflexes

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  • Biology
  • Computer Science
  • Engineering


For a hungry fruit fly, locating and landing on a fermenting fruit where it can feed, find mates, and lay eggs, is an essential and difficult task requiring the integration of both olfactory and visual cues. Understanding how flies accomplish this will help provide a comprehensive ethological context for the expanding knowledge of their neural circuits involved in processing olfaction and vision, as well as inspire novel engineering solutions for control and estimation in computationally limited robotic applications. In this thesis, I use novel high throughput methods to develop a detailed overview of how flies track odor plumes, land, and regulate flight speed. Finally, I provide an example of how these insights can be applied to robotic applications to simplify complicated estimation problems. To localize an odor source, flies exhibit three iterative, reflex-driven behaviors. Upon encountering an attractive plume, flies increase their flight speed and turn upwind using visual cues. After losing the plume, flies begin zigzagging crosswind, again using visual cues to control their heading. After sensing an attractive odor, flies become more attracted to small visual features, which increases their chances of finding the plume source. Their changes in heading are largely controlled by open-loop maneuvers called saccades, which they direct towards and away from visual features. If a fly decides to land on an object, it begins to decelerate so as to maintain a stereotypical ratio of expansion to retinal size. Once they reach a stereotypical distance from the target, flies extend their legs in preparation for touchdown. Although it is unclear what cues they use to trigger this behavior, previous studies have indicated that it is likely under visual control. In Chapter 3, I use a nonlinear control theoretic analysis and robotic testbed to propose a novel and putative mechanism for how a fly might visually estimate distance by actively decelerating according to a visual control law. Throughout these behaviors, a common theme is the visual control of flight speed. Using genetic tools I show that the neuromodulator octopamine plays an important role in regulating flight speed, and propose a neural circuit for how this controller might be implemented in the flies brain. Two general biological and engineering principles are evident across my experiments: (1) complex behaviors, such as foraging, can emerge from the interactions of simple independent sensory-motor modules; (2) flies control their behavior in such a way that simplifies complex estimation problems.

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