UW Researchers: Tiny-Brained Fruit Flies Are Top Gun Fliers

Apr 18, 2014

New research out of the University of Washington shows that an insect with a brain smaller than a salt grain can take complex evasive action in flight. The findings could have value for engineers.

Consider the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. It’s — actually, wait. You really should click this soundtrack before you read any further.

Right. So, drosophila. You see them buzzing around your wine glass or your compost bin. Maybe you wave it away with your hand, and it seems to dart around to avoid the swat.

But look much closer, and you start to see the evasive maneuver is really an agile banked turn, like an F-16 fighter jet dodging a missile.

Looking closely is exactly what UW biology professor Michael Dickinson did. His team used a high-speed video camera to snap 7,500 frames per second of fruit flies swerving to avoid a threat.

“What was surprising was sort of how good they are at it, that they can calculate their banked turn very, very quickly, depending upon where the threat is coming from. And that they generate these turns with remarkably tiny changes in wing motion,” Dickinson said.

The fruit fly does all that with a miniscule brain and wing muscles, and all in the blink of an eye — well, actually, about 50 times faster than an eye blink.

Dickinson says fruit flies’ flying acuity could hold lessons for engineers working on miniaturization.

“We’re going to be taking more and more inspiration from the animals in nature that already do small very, very well,” he said.

Fruit flies are already a widely-studied model for questions in biology and genetics, making them one of the most studied lab animals around. And still, Dickinson says a week rarely goes by where he doesn’t learn something new about them.