The Design, Construction, and Application of a 3D Flying Prey Simulator to Aid in the Investigation of Neuronal Control in Dragonflies

Max Balter, Adam Zinman


The goal of this interdisciplinary research project is to investigate the neuronal control of flying prey interception in dragonflies by designing, constructing, and programming an apparatus to simulate the complex motions of a flying insect. Our three-dimensional motion device is capable of mimicking a flying insect by moving a small glass bead accurately up to speeds of 1 m/s. Dragonflies are highly efficient aerial predators that have the remarkable capability of intercepting and capturing small insects in flight. This complex process generally occurs in less than 300 ms, with success rates as high as 97%1. Prey capture behavior requires both rapid visual processing and information transmission, resulting in the evolution of large neurons in the control pathway. Eight pairs of large neurons, called Target-Selective Descending Neurons (TSDNs), are implicated in steering the interception flight. These neurons descend from the brain of the dragonfly to the wing motor regions of the thorax, transmitting visual information about prey movement. Our stimulus device will be used to determine the way in which the TSDN's encode information about object movement in three dimensions. To date, visual neuron studies have been mostly restricted to two dimensions, the x-direction (left - right) and the y-direction (up - down), recording responses to images displayed on a flat projection screen. However, Dr. Olberg of the Biology Department at Union College hypothesized that the z-dimension (front - back) movement is vital to understanding the exact roles of these neurons in prey interception. An understanding of visually guided prey interception by dragonflies, could lead to the development of effective guidance mechanisms for military or civilian use. The device consists of 80/20 extruded aluminum parts, timing belts and pulleys, ball bearings, metal axles, and DC brushed motors with encoders. The device is computer controlled by Simulink and Real Time Windows Target, which are components of MATLAB.


Neuronal Control in Dragonflies; Prey Interception; Control Theory

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