fruit fly Drosophila hydei
April 11, 2014

Jet-Like Banking Abilities Of Flies Help Them Avoid Predators

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

If you’ve ever wondered why it can be so gosh-darned hard to swat a buzzing fly, you’re not alone – researchers from the University of Washington used an array of high-speed video cameras in an attempt to solve the mystery.

Thanks to equipment capable of operating at 7,500 frames per second, postdoctoral researcher Florian Muijres and his colleagues captured the wing and body motion of the insects after they were presented with an image of an encroaching predator.

According to’s Matt Simon, their video revealed that the fruit fly or Drosophila hydei is capable of banking as quickly as a fighter jet and changing course in just one one-hundredth of a second. While fruit flies typically flap their wings roughly 200 times per second, their evasive maneuvers can be accomplished in just a lone wing beat, he added.

The study, which appears in the April 11 edition of the journal Science, involved the use of three high-speed cameras and 40-50 fruit flies in an enclosed area, the researchers explained. Two lasers were pointed at the exact center of the location, and when any of the fruit flies hit the intersection of those beams, it triggered an expanding shadow which forced the insect to protect itself by taking evasive action.

[ Watch the Video: Escape Maneuver Of A Flying Fly ]

“Although they have been described as swimming through the air, tiny flies actually roll their bodies just like aircraft in a banked turn to maneuver away from impending threats,” co-author and UW biology professor Michael Dickinson said in a statement Thursday. “We discovered that fruit flies alter course… 50 times faster than we blink our eyes, and which is faster than we ever imagined.”

“They process this information so quickly, as anyone who has tried to swat a fly will have noticed,” he told BBC News. “You might imagine that when a fly is doing such a crazy maneuver that there would be a big change in how it flaps its wings. But it is actually remarkably subtle. It shows the flies' nervous system and muscles are able to control movements to a very, very fine scale.”

Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the ability appears to be innate, as Dickinson told the BBC that the flies are capable of pulling off this difficult maneuver as soon as they are born. He compared it to “putting a newborn baby in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft and it knowing what to do.” The next step, the professor added, is to determine how the insect’s muscles and brain are able to control these extremely fast, accurate movements.

Since the fruit fly’s brain is only the size of a grain of salt, understanding how these mechanisms work could be useful in the development of tiny flying robots capable of avoiding obstacles, said National Geographic reporter James Owen. Similarly, the study authors believe that the changes in the creature’s wingbeat could also lead to new insights into flight control methods for robotics experts working on micro-scale vehicles that flap.

Image 2 (below): Time lapse images from a high speed video shows how a fruit fly startled by a looming shadow (off camera at the bottom right) performs a rapid roll to bank away from the threat. Credit: F Muijres/U of Washington