Before this study, it was generally assumed that dragonflies — and many other predators — use very basic reflexive movements to follow their prey.
"The idea is that you see something in the world, and that stimulus slowly but surely drives responses from your muscles, and something happens," lead author and Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus group leader Anthony Leonardo explained. A basic example of this is the escape response: When something moved towards a fly, they see that movement and jump away.
We know that humans and other primates can't always just rely on these reflexes. Reaching for a morning cup of coffee — or catching a ball — requires incredibly sophisticated calculation. One must have an internal image of their own body in space, calculating both the movement of their body towards an object and any movement of the object itself. That's why running to catch a flying football is no easy task.
Hunting dragonflies are performing moves just as smooth as a pro athlete's, but scientists still assumed that their movements followed a reflexive mechanism. In other words, the dragonfly would twist its body in 90-degree angles in reaction to its prey's movement. After all, the insects have fairly simple nervous systems.
But by testing dragonflies with both real prey and fake targets (the flight patterns of which could be controlled by the research team) and tracking their movements, Leonardo and his colleagues found the bugs to be much more coordinated than we've ever given them credit for.
Instead of watching its prey for cues, a dragonfly on the prowl will move its body on a path that allows it to approach the prey from below, decreasing the risk of detection. But as it turns its body, the dragonfly manages to keep the most sensitive part of its eye fixed directly on the prey.
Think that sounds easy?
Imagine staring out a window at a bird as it flies from branch to branch. Instead of moving your eyes to follow it, try to predict its movements so that your eyes move in tandem with it — always keeping the bird fixed just at the center of your eyeball.
Yeah, it makes my head hurt, too.
But for dragonflies, Leonardo said, "the predictions are nearly perfect."
"Clearly, somewhere there are interconnected neurons encoding this info," he said, "and when a signal from the brain goes down to the wings saying 'steer this way,' it's also able to say, 'given that I'm steering this way, my body will rotate this way — and given that the prey is over there, that will make the prey rotate this way, and I should turn my head thusly to keep an eye on it."
Leonardo and his team is hoping to track down the exact neurological mechanism that gives dragonflies this ESP-like hunting skill. And figuring out the secrets of this fairly simple — but clearly fascinating — nervous system may help scientists understand our own.
"Algorithmically, it's exactly the same kind of process a human is going through," Leonardo said. "When you reach to pick up coffee, you're solving the same problem as the dragonfly." So the underlying neurological circuitry will probably have something in common. "The hope is that studying this system will help us learn a lot about humans."