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Dragonflies Aim Ahead to Catch Prey

Dec 10, 2014 05:29 PM EST
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Do you remember your first game of catch? It may be easy now, but guessing where the ball was headed and getting your hand in its path was something you had to learn. It turns out that this isn't so for dragonflies, who appear to be born with the ability to predict the flight path of their prey.
(Photo : Pixabay)

Do you remember your first game of catch? It may be easy now, but guessing where the ball was headed and getting your hand in its path was something you had to learn. It turns out that this isn't so for dragonflies, who appear to be born with the ability to predict the flight path of their prey.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Nature, which details how dragonflies anticipate the movement of their prey by steering their body into the projected flight path, even as their head and eyes still track the quarry in real-time.

"This enables the dragonfly to catch the prey from beneath and behind the prey's blind spot," Anthony Leonardo, at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia, told New Scientist.

According to Leonardo, this is a huge revelation for understanding insect predation, as it had previously been thought that their minds were too simple for this kind of relationship between action and anticipation.

Before these latest results, experts believed that dragonflies simply copied every steering movement made by their prey, relying on their incredible agility and speed to eventually chase down a meal. Now, it seems, they hunt much more like intelligent birds of prey.

According to the study, this was all determined after Leonardo and his colleagues fitted tiny reflectors to the heads and backs of dragonflies, allowing high speed camera equipment to track not only the insects' flight while chasing prey, but how they positioned these parts of the body.

You can watch a demonstration of this setup below. (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: Mischiati et al / Nature - doi:10.1038/nature14045]

Amazingly, the dragonflies appear to know that small changes don't matter, staying true to their inevitable predicted interception 70 percent of the time, even as the simulated prey (controlled by a computer) made zig-zagging changes.

It's important to point out that this kind of predictive hunting is commonplace in vertebrates, but Leonardo says that this is the first concrete evidence of it occurring in insects.

The research team now hopes to move on to study the unique neural pathways that are involved in this kind of predatory bug behavior.

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

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