How often have you chased a fly around your house with a fly swatter or folded newspaper? There it is, I’ll get it! You swat at it and it is long gone. You are determined to get the fly so you hunt down again...and again...and again. You hear it buzzing in the kitchen window so you plan your approach and your attack. But your attack fails again–and again. About the time you decide to give up for awhile and flop into a soft chair, swatter or newspaper still in hand, here it comes, buzzing around your head–BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ–like an Air Force jet doing dive bombings and maneuvers around a target, or assaulting a UFO. I think flies do that on purpose to show they can outsmart us. How can some little fly have such smarts, we wonder? Well, we don’t have to wonder anymore. Scientists have the answer.
According to new research by scientists at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) published in the journal Current Biology, they have concluded flies have a quick-fire intelligence and are good at planning ahead. The scientists filmed experiments with fruit flies and a fly swatter. They discovered that flies quickly calculated the location of the threat and apparently had an escape plan. Incredible, within 100 milliseconds of spotting the swatter they could move their bodies into a position that allowed an extension of the legs to save them.
Caltech Professor Michael Dickinson, who lead the study said their experiments showed how rapidly a fly's brain processed sensory information. "They're actually jumping away from our swatter because they take the time to plan their escape," Dickinson said. "This illustrates how rapidly the fly's brain can process sensory information into an appropriate motor response."
Dickinson stated, "We also found that when the fly makes planning movements prior to take-off, it takes into account its body position at the time it first sees the threat. When it first notices an approaching threat, a fly's body might be in any sort of posture depending on what it was doing at the time, like grooming, feeding, walking, or courting. Our experiments showed that the fly somehow 'knows' whether it needs to make large or small postural changes to reach the correct preflight posture."
"This is a rather sophisticated sensory-to-motor transformation and the search is on to find the place in the brain where this happens," Dickinson said. "There's actually many labs around the world trying to figure out how their little brains work so we can use that knowledge to figure out how our own brains work."
Dickinson told KNBC TV that he's been in science almost 20 years and he's never published anything that has received so much public attention. The Research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The paper, "Visually Mediated Motor Planning in the Escape Response of Drosophila," was published Aug. 28 in the journal Current Biology.
Dickinson’s advice on how to successfully swat the illusive insect: "It is best not to swat at the fly's starting position, but rather to aim a bit forward of that to anticipate where the fly is going to jump when it first sees your swatter."
I’ve already been trying that with little luck. How about you? I believe the best fly catcher and swatter is my cat, Snickers. He’s pretty good at outwitting a fly. And beside, Snickers sometimes has more patience than I do.
"Where'd that dang fly go?"