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Video: Flight of the Fruit Fly

Watch this presentation by University of Washington neuroethologist Michael Dickinson (at TEDxCaltech), whose enthusiasm for fruit flies is hard to resist. As he says in conclusion, "Think before you swat."

In fact, successfully swatting a fruit fly is difficult verging on impossible -- as we've had lots of time to reflect in our home of late, over a particularly intense Drosophila season in the Seattle area. The way they fly looks so lazy, it seems like they ought to be easy to clap between your hands, but of course that is actually devilishly difficult to do.

Dickinson is a very intense guy himself, and gives a remarkable discussion of what makes the engineering that goes into fruit fly flight so amazing. A big part of it is that they do so much with such a meager gift of neurons, only about a hundred thousand.

In a profile of him today in the Science section of the New York Times, Dickinson notes the recently revealed capacity of fruit flies for navigation, shared with another, more widely admired insect:

"One of our more recent observations is that drosophila can read the sky compass," he continued, "so they have the same capability that monarch butterflies have of being able to basically look at the sky" and figure out direction based on the polarization of light.

With this ability, there's no need to see the whole sky or star patterns. "It works even when you have only a tiny patch of blue sky. It's a solution vertebrates didn't come upon, humans didn't come upon, but insects did."

And brilliant of them to do so, wouldn't you say?