Fruit flies sense every wing beat to steer straight

Fruit flies have 17 pairs of steering muscles connected to their wings, all of which play a role in the flight mechanism, but the exact role of each muscle during free flight has been difficult to pinpoint. (Credit: Pierre Kessler/Flickr)

In order to fly straight, fruit flies sense where their bodies are every time they beat their wings—one beat about every 4 milliseconds.

Fruit flies have 17 pairs of steering muscles connected to their wings, all of which play a role in the flight mechanism. The exact role of each muscle during free flight is difficult to pinpoint. Tiny changes during complex wing movement are also hard to observe.

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But by using computational simulations and analysis, researchers are attacking the problem in a different way. They’re investigating how fast and how frequently an insect must act to create lift and stability, starting not with the study of individual neurons and muscles, but from a framework of macroscopic physical laws.

“We started by asking at what time scales a model fruit fly needs to sense and act in order to maintain its balance in air,” says Z. Jane Wang, professor of physics and mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University.

“This led to our conjecture about a fruit fly’s sensing rate, and also a prediction about the function of one of its muscles.”

Putting the computational results together with previous findings from recordings of motor neurons, the researchers proposed a specific neural circuitry responsible for the control of flight stability.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study adds to the overall goal of understanding the evolution of flight, and the role that such physical laws as hydrodynamics have played in the behavior of living organisms.

The framework for this simulation and control algorithm are applicable to studies of other fliers, both natural and man-made, Wang says.

Source: Cornell University