Fruit Flies Are Mathematical Wizards

Fruit flies have been the subject of many scientific studies. For a long time, it was just because they were small, handy, and easy to breed.

But it turns out they have fascinating abilities all their own. Fruit flies can travel with tremendous accuracy, even in the face of wind bursts that should blast them out of the sky given their tiny body weight.

Somehow, Drosophilidae manage to stay unerringly aloft, no matter what. Recently, a team of Cornell University scientists decided they would try to get to the bottom of the fruit fly’s mysteries once and for all.

A little background

The name “fruit fly” refers to a diverse family of insects, and not all of them friendly. For example, Drosophila suzukii, or the spotted wing drosophila, infests berry crops. Drosophila repleta spread bacteria.

Fruit flies are often used as the subjects for genetic testing. They’ve served as to help us understand the biology of other species. Their ability to stay in the air despite all the elements working against them makes them a great scientific curiosity.

The Cornell study

Researchers at Cornell University were interested in why fruit flies not only stay aloft, they manage it with accuracy and balletic style. The Cornell study group investigated how flies make corrections when their flight path is disturbed. Their conclusion is that fruit flies actually do calculus as part of their flying routine.

Itai Cohen and four of other researchers used magnets to knock the flies off their path during flight. They recorded the corrections the insects made during the induced turbulence.

The tiny magnets sent a pulse that would disturb the flight path, pulling the flies one way or another. The study focused on two navigational elements:

Pitch – up or down movement

Yaw – left or right movement

The scientists used video cameras to record the insects’ flight at 8,000 frames per second to get a proper look at what each fruit fly was doing to adjust its direction. Researchers created a three-dimensional reconstruction of the fly in flight.

The magnetic force on each insect gave the scientists control of the elements that would cause a flight disturbance. Between the video reconstruction and the data from the magnets, the scientists were able to create mathematical formulas that corresponded to the fly’s corrections.

So wait … fruit flies do calculus?

Of course, the fruit flies were not doing calculus the way humans do it, but the corrections their nervous systems enable them to make to respond to disturbances in flight can be translated into calculus formulas that give researchers a better understanding of the flies’ flight capabilities.

A fly’s nervous system gets a signal about how the flight is changing. It “does the math” and reacts by sending adjustments much like a flight navigator on an airplane. Flies have two gyroscopes that measure the changes and adapt to keep its flight path level.

Understanding how fruit flies manage to such intricate flight patterns in the face of some impressive obstacles gives scientists insight into how their nervous systems work, despite the absence of durable hardware. This could have implications for the future of human flight.

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