Visual control of landing in Drosophila (2012)

A Landing Fly.
A Landing Fly.

Landing behavior is one of the most critical, yet least studied, aspects of insect flight. In order to land safely, an insect must recognize a visual feature, navigate towards it, decelerate, and extend its legs in preparation for touchdown. Although previous studies have focused on the visual stimuli that trigger these different components, the complete sequence has not been systematically studied in a free-flying animal. Using a real-time 3D tracking system in conjunction with high speed digital imaging, we were able to capture the landing sequences of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) from the moment they first steered toward a visual target, to the point of touchdown. This analysis was made possible by a custom-built feedback system that actively maintained the fly in the focus of the high speed camera. The results suggest that landing is composed of three distinct behavioral modules. First, a fly actively turns towards a stationary target via a directed body saccade. Next, it begins to decelerate at a point determined by both the size of the visual target and its rate of expansion on the retina. Finally, the fly extends its legs when the visual target reaches a threshold retinal size of approximately 60deg. Our data also let us compare landing sequences with flight trajectories that, although initially directed toward a visual target, did not result in landing. In these ʻfly-byʼ trajectories, flies steer toward the target but then exhibit a targeted aversive saccade when the target subtends a retinal size of approximately 33deg. Collectively, the results provide insight into the organization of sensorimotor modules that underlie the landing and search behaviors of insects.

Coauthored with Michael Dickinson. Read more at the Journal of Experimental Biology.

High speed video: A fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) approaches and lands on a vertical post, filmed at 5,000 frames per second. To keep the fly in focus I built a custom feed-forward focus control system for the camera, which used 3D information from a realtime computer vision based tracking system.