Object detection in the fly during simulated translatory flight
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Translatory movement of an animal in its environment induces optic flow that contains information about the three-dimensional layout of the surroundings: as a rule, images of objects that are closer to the animal move faster across the retina than those of more distant objects. Such relative motion cues are used by flies to detect objects in front of a structured background. We confronted flying flies, tethered to a torque meter, with front-to-back motion of patterns displayed on two CRT screens, thereby simulating translatory motion of the background as experienced by an animal during straight flight. The torque meter measured the instantaneous turning responses of the fly around its vertical body axis. During short time intervals, object motion was superimposed on background pattern motion. The average turning response towards such an object depends on both object and background velocity in a characteristic way: (1) in order to elicit significant responses object motion has to be faster than background motion; (2) background motion within a certain range of velocities improves object detection. These properties can be interpreted as adaptations to situations as they occur in natural free flight. We confirmed that the measured responses were mediated mainly by a control system specialized for the detection of objects rather than by the compensatory optomotor system responsible for course stabilization.
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