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Figure–ground discrimination behavior in Drosophila. II. Visual influences on head movement behavior


Visual identification of small moving targets is a challenge for all moving animals. Their own motion generates displacement of the visual surroundings, inducing wide-field optic flow across the retina. Wide-field optic flow is used to sense perturbations in the flight course. Both ego-motion and corrective optomotor responses confound any attempt to track a salient target moving independently of the visual surroundings. What are the strategies that flying animals use to discriminate small-field figure motion from superimposed wide-field background motion? We examined how fruit flies adjust their gaze in response to a compound visual stimulus comprising a small moving figure against an independently moving wide-field ground, which they do by re-orienting their head or their flight trajectory. We found that fixing the head in place impairs object fixation in the presence of ground motion, and that head movements are necessary for stabilizing wing steering responses to wide-field ground motion when a figure is present. When a figure is moving relative to a moving ground, wing steering responses follow components of both the figure and ground trajectories, but head movements follow only the ground motion. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that wing responses can be uncoupled from head responses and that the two follow distinct trajectories in the case of simultaneous figure and ground motion. These results suggest that whereas figure tracking by wing kinematics is independent of head movements, head movements are important for stabilizing ground motion during active figure tracking.

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