NROS 415: Dragonflies tiny brain

Hello! As a preceptor, this blog is an opportunity for me to relate my own research to what students are seeing in class. I don't pretend to be an expert on any topic (yet), but hopefully new insights or knowledge will come from this addendum to the class material. Luckily we have a group that is very interested in learning beyond the assigned curricula, and many have demonstrated an interest in the tiny brains of not only flies, but other insects as well. And since this week we have planned a Dragonfly-Quest, I'll talk a bit about Dragonflies as an introduction of them to students.

We've been studying Ventral Nerve Chords in flies. In insects, brains are so small that they are highly specialized, and VNC usually perform a very specific task closely related to the insect survival. In the case of flies, the VNC spikes ("activates") when something big looms towards the fly - like a fly-swater - and the fly accordingly reacts, quickly thanks to the specialization of the VNC and its direct connection to muscles to avoid death. On dragonflies, however, looming objects are not their main concerns, but target acquiring is, in order to eat.

Dragonflies are predators. They eat other small insects. Their VNC are trained to detect small objects in their vision that are moving, and the VNC helps determine the trajectory so the Dragonfly can intercept it. When a small dot just the right size and at the right distance/speed enters their vision, neurons activate quickly in the VNC and the dragonfly attacks. With a very high rate of capture!

Can you imagine the applications of this in technology? For flies, maybe a car that avoids collisions at all costs. For dragonflies, how about a tracking robot that tracks missiles who put in peril a country? Just a couple suggestions, but research done in dragonflies and flies is interesting in its own merit, since we can always learn more about the brain from analyzing it's outcomes, learning more about the magic going on in the neurons by the response of the VNC and the muscles.

We would like to thank our sponsors:

Funding from the Mathworks made this lab possible!
Special thanks to Professor Rick Levine and Professor Lynne Oland for the loan of equipment that made this lab complete.

Lab Location

The Lab is located in the Gould Simpson building, Room 404, on the University of Arizona campus.

To contact us, please email: