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Dragonflies are extremely good hunters, because they predict movements of their pray

Some animals seem to be out of this world when it comes to reflexes and hunting skills. For example, dragonflies seem to be able to snatch their pray from mid-air regardless of how much this insect is trying to escape. Now scientists from Australia and Sweden have shown that it is not just a quick reaction – brains of a dragonfly are able to predict the path of their prey.

Dragonflies are good at hiding, but they usually catch their pray mid-flight. Image credit: John Tann via Wikimedia(CC BY 2.0)

It is not really a new phenomenon – scientists were researching how animals predict movement of other for a long time. However, most of these studies focused on mammals, since they are much more complex organisms with different neural networks that enable them to see the movement as it is happening and predict where it is leading. This complexity may be interesting for research, but it is hard to replicate. Meanwhile dragonflies also have a mechanism allowing them to predict the movement of their pray, but it is much more simple.

Scientists say that understanding how this works could have a strong impact on the future of robotics. So how dragonflies do these wonders in mid-flight? Scientists discovered specific neurons, which allow dragonflies focusing on a quickly moving object in a mixed background. It is a bit like humans catching balls in the background of cheering crowds. Professor David O’Carroll from Lund University explained: “The dragonfly neurons can make a selection of a single target from the mass of visual information that the brain receives, such as the motion of another insect, and then predict its direction and future location. The dragonfly, like humans, makes this assessment based on the path along which the object moves”.

This is quite interesting. It means that evolution has enabled a simple dragonfly to use complex visual perception processes to hunt more effectively – it is a little bit similar to how mammals go around the same task. Scientists managed to record activity of these neurons. They increased in activity when eyes of the dragonfly were tracking an object and if the object disappeared from insect’s field of vision it automatically focused on where it is likely to reappear. But how is it useful for us and why scientists are so excited about this discovery?

In short, this knowledge and a basic model based on dragonfly’s prediction mechanism could lead to improvements in artificial control and vision systems, such as self-steering vehicles and bionic vision. Scientists often take inspiration from nature, but usually from more complex creatures. They do offer more options, but are more difficult to replicate, so a dragonfly seems to be the right option for studying visual perception and prediction.

 

Source: University of Adelaide

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