Luminance-dependent visual processing enables moth flight in low light

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Science  12 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6240, pp. 1245-1248
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa3042

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Not too fast and not too slow

Moths are typically active during dawn and dusk when light levels are low and vision is challenging. Slower visual response times can allow for greater light sensitivity, but flying insects are both moving and tracking moving targets, making such tradeoffs potentially problematic. Using a combination of modeling and experiments, Sponberg et al. show that moths are able to avoid this potential decrease in visual acuity (see the Perspective by Warrant). This is because the point at which their perception of movement would be compromised is just above the natural frequency at which flowers sway. Thus, insect vision is precisely adapted to the light and movement conditions of their environment.

Science, this issue p. 1245; see also p. 1212


Animals must operate under an enormous range of light intensities. Nocturnal and twilight flying insects are hypothesized to compensate for dim conditions by integrating light over longer times. This slowing of visual processing would increase light sensitivity but should also reduce movement response times. Using freely hovering moths tracking robotic moving flowers, we showed that the moth’s visual processing does slow in dim light. These longer response times are consistent with models of how visual neurons enhance sensitivity at low light intensities, but they could pose a challenge for moths feeding from swaying flowers. Dusk-foraging moths avoid this sensorimotor tradeoff; their nervous systems slow down but not so much as to interfere with their ability to track the movements of real wind-blown flowers.

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