Odor plume tracking in Drosophila (2014)

A long exposure of a fruit fly illuminated by a shaft of light as the fly approaches a fermenting strawberry in a wind tunnel.
A long exposure of a fruit fly illuminated by a shaft of light as the fly approaches a fermenting strawberry in a wind tunnel.

Background: For a fruit fly, locating fermenting fruit where it can feed, find mates, and lay eggs is an essential and difficult task requiring the integration of olfactory and visual cues. Here, we develop an approach to correlate flies’ free-flight behavior with their olfactory experience under different wind and visual conditions, yielding new insight into plume tracking based on over 70 hr of data.

Results: To localize an odor source, flies exhibit three iterative, independent, reflex-driven behaviors, which remain constant through repeated encounters of the same stimulus: (1) 190 6 75 ms after encountering a plume, flies increase their flight speed and turn upwind, using visual cues to determine wind direction. Due to this substantial response delay, flies pass through the plume shortly after entering it. (2) 450 6 165 ms after losing the plume, flies initiate a series of vertical and horizontal casts, using visual cues to maintain a crosswind heading. (3) After sensing an attractive odor, flies exhibit an enhanced attraction to small visual features, which increases their probability of finding the plume’s source.

Conclusions: Due to plume structure and sensory-motor delays, a fly’s olfactory experience during foraging flights consists of short bursts of odor stimulation. As a con- sequence, delays in the onset of crosswind casting and the increased attraction to visual features are necessary behav- ioral components for efficiently locating an odor source. Our results provide a quantitative behavioral background for eluci- dating the neural basis of plume tracking using genetic and physiological approaches.

Coauthored with Michael Dickinson. Read more about my work in Current Biology.