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Fruit Flies Are Self Aware?! Experts Say it's Possible

Aug 14, 2015 07:33 AM EDT
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Flying insect numbers drop, threatening world ecosystem

Being self-aware is not exactly a common trait in the animal kingdom. Experts know that dolphins, great apes, and even some 'lesser' monkey species are surprisingly aware of their own person. Still, the idea that any insect, never mind a simple fruit fly, could entertain a concept of self identify has long seemed impossible. Now, however, a team of researchers is arguing that bugs could know they're bugging you.

That's at least according to a study recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience, which details how fruit flies are not only distinct individuals, but also are aware of their lot in life, albeit temporarily.

Traditionally, behaviorists and biologists have used a marriage between brain scans and mirror experiments to determine if an animal is self-aware.

Rhesus monkeys, for instance, can learn to become familiar with their own face after spending time with a mirror. If a researcher were to paint a green dot on a monkey's face, the animal would see it in his reflection and immediately touch his own face as if to say "how did that get there?" Chimpanzees take this even further, using mirrors to not only inspect their own bodies but to also dress themselves. These great apes have even been known to refer to themselves in sign-language - an indisputable example of self-awareness.

In the case of insects, however, researchers can't exactly teach a fly sign language or adequately measure their behavioral responses to a mirror. That's where brain scans come in. (Scroll to read on...)

Researchers with the University of Queensland reportedly tethered several common fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) to an air-supported ball in front of a digital display. They then monitored these insects' neural activity as they attempted to 'fly' though simulated surroundings.

The flies were exposed to two scenarios in all: one where their flight actions on the ball dictated how the simulation responded, and another where they had absolutely no control (a recording of a previous session was just played back). It was argued that if the insects acted purely on instinct, their brain activity would remain consistent as they mindlessly responded to the display. However, the researchers were surprised to observe something very different.

"We found that when the fly is in control there is an increase in communication between brain regions, compared to when they are just responding to the very same visual stimuli replayed to them," Bruno van Swinderen, a researcher with the Queensland Brain Institute, explained in a statement. (Scroll to read on...)

In other words, it appears that the flies stopped paying attention when they 'realized' they had no control - and for such a realization to occur, a fly would have to be aware he had control in the first place.

"There were actually some star performers that immediately understood whether they were in control or not, and some never seemed to know the difference," the researcher said, noting that this may be a sign of varied fly intellect or personality. "Across our research, there is always individuality between all of the animals. They all behave differently."

"It's really interesting that humans and flies share the ability to focus and have attention," van Swinderen added. "The difference is that we have around 100 billion neurons, and they only have 100,000 to do pretty much the same - focus on one thing at a time and select the best course of action."

In this way, he explained, these insects aren't exactly capable of conspiring to bug us. Still, when the flyswatter closes in, the pests will certainly know something has gone wrong. You have to admit, there's some satisfaction to be had in knowing that.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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