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Hawkmoths Can Slow Their Brains When Hovering To See In Dark, Scientists Discover

First Posted: Jun 15, 2015 03:23 PM EDT

Moths may be a bit smarter than your average insect. Scientists have discovered that hawkmoths have the unique ability to slow down their brains when hovering in order to see better in the dark and to better target the swaying flowers that they look to for food.

"There has been a lot of interest in understanding how animals deal with challenging sensing environments, especially when they are also doing difficult tasks like hovering in mid-air," said Simon Sponberg, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This is also a very significant challenge for micro air vehicles."

Scientists already knew the moths use specialized eye structures in order to maximize the amount of light they can capture. However, they wondered whether the moths might also be slowing their nervous systems to make the best use of limit light; in other words, they were slowing their brains. But if that was the case, wouldn't it hurt their ability to hover and track the motion of flowers?

In order to answer these questions, the scientists used high-speed infrared cameras to track the motion of the moths as they fed at nectar-dispensing robotic flowers that moved fromside-to-side at different rates. The researchers also measured the motion of flowers in the wild to compare

So what did they find? The moths were able to track robotic flowers that were oscillating at rates of up to 20 hertz; that's 20 oscillations per second. This is considerably faster than the two-hertz maximum rate that the researchers witnessed in real flowers. Because the moth's wings beat at a rate of about 25 strokes per second, they had to adjust their direction of movement with nearly every wingstroke.

"This is really an extreme behavior, though the moth makes it look simple and elegant," said Sponberg. "To maneuver like this is really quite challenging. It's an extreme behavior from both a sensory and motor control perspective."

These findings don't just have implications for insects, either. They could be used to help design flying robots. Because hawkmoths are so precise with their movements, they're a good example for what engineers should aim for.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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