By: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Published: 12/27/2012 07:03 PM EST on LiveScience
Dragonflies lack humans' big brains, but they still get the job done, according to new research that suggests that these insects have brain cells capable of feats previously seen only in primates.
Specifically, the dragonflies can screen out useless visual information to focus on a target, a process called selective attention. The new study, published Dec. 20 in the journal Current Biology, is the first to find brain cells devoted to selective attention in an invertebrate animal.
Selective attention is crucial for responding to one stimulus among the dozens of distractions that clamor for notice at any given time, said Steven Wiederman of the University of Adelaide in Australia.
"Imagine a tennis player having to pick out a small ball from the crowd when it's traveling at almost 200 kilometers an hour," Wiederman said in a statement. "You need selective attention in order to hit that ball back into play."
But little is known about how the brain locks onto its targets and ignores all else. To find out, Wiederman, who is from the university's Center for Neuroscience Research, and his colleague David O'Carroll turned to an unlikely animal. The researchers have long studied insect vision, and the dragonfly turns out to be quite adept in that arena. [Photos: Dew-Covered Dragonflies & Other Sparkling Insects]
"The dragonfly hunts for other insects, and these might be part of a swarm — they're all tiny moving objects," Wiederman said. "Once the dragonfly has selected a target, its neuron activity filters out all other potential prey. The dragonfly then swoops in on its prey — they get it right 97 percent of the time."
Using a glass probe with a tip 1,500 times smaller than a human hair, the researchers measured the neuronal activity that enables such amazing aerial hunting. A similar process is at work in the primate brain, O'Carroll said in a statement, but researchers weren't expecting to see the same thing in an insect that evolved 325 million years ago.
"We believe our work will appeal to neuroscientists and engineers alike," O'Carroll said. "For example, it could be used as a model system for robotic vision. Because the insect brain is simple and accessible, future work may allow us to fully understand the underlying network of neurons and copy it into intelligent robots."
Plenty of other insects have inspired robot designs. Swiss scientists, for example, have built a hovering drone that mimics insects in its ability to survive collisions with hard objects. Sometimes insects are recruited directly. North Carolina State University researchers reported in September that they'd managed to create cyborg Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The scientists wired a microcontroller to the insects' sensory organs, enabling them to steer the cockroaches' movements.
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<em>Lonomia obliqua </em> Look out for it in: Brazil, Argentina, and neighboring countries Why you should fear it: The caterpillars release a powerful toxin that can cause internal bleeding and massive organ failure. Notorious victim: A young Canadian tourist walked barefoot through a resort and stepped on five. Although local hospitals carried an antivenin, she didn't seek treatment until she returned home--a mistake that cost her her life.
<em>Culicoides spp. </em> Look out for it in: Everywhere. Why you should fear it: Also called no-see-ums, biting midges are a serious annoyance in the Scottish Highlands--so much so that tourists check the Biting Midge Forecast before heading out for a round of golf or a trek to a distillery. In Brazil and around the Amazon, they transmit Oropouche fever. Notorious victim: According to a community study, the biting midge broke up marriages in Hervey Bay, Australia, presumably because couples were forced to spend more time indoors together.
<em>Paederus sp. </em> Look out for it in: Most of the world. Why you should fear it: The beetle lands on the skin but doesn't bite. People tend to want to slap it, which releases a nasty poison called pederin that causes horrible blisters and welts. Notorious victim: Our troops stationed in Iraq. The beetles tend to swarm around the bright lights at military bases.
Asian giant hornet
<em>Vespa mandarina japonica</em> Look out for it in: Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea Why you should fear it: Stings deliver a powerful neurotoxin that could be fatal. Notorious victim: Dr. Masato Ono, the world's leading expert on the giant hornet, said the sting felt like "a hot nail through my leg."
<em>Taenia solium </em> Look out for it in: South America, Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe and North America Why you should fear it: While modern livestock management here at home has practically eliminated tapeworm-infested pork, the tapeworm eggs can be spread directly from one infected person to another. How? Let's just say that it's really, really important to wash hands after going to the bathroom-- and leave it at that. Notorious victim: A woman in Arizona went into surgery thinking she had a brain tumor, and woke up later to learn that the cause of her problems had been a tapeworm, not a tumor.
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<em>Tunga penetrans </em> Look out for it in: Tropical beaches in Latin America, the Caribbean, India, and Africa. Why you should fear it: Tiny fleas burrow under toenails and lay eggs, creating awful sores and possible infection Notorious victim: Members of Christopher Columbus' crew were made so miserable by chigoe fleas that they cut off their own toes to get rid of the bugs.
<em>Centruroides sp. </em> Look out for it in: Southern United States, Central and South America Why you should fear it: The venom can cause severe pain, difficulty breathing, and can be fatal to small children. Notorious victim: A little boy vacationing with his family in Mexico stepped on a scorpion in his shoe. He was flown to a hospital in San Diego, placed on life support, and did survive.
<em>Cimex lectularius</em> Look out for it in: Your bed Why you should fear it: After hearing about all these other nasty creatures, you aren't still worried about bed bugs, are you? Bed bugs may be annoying, but they are not known to transmit disease. They may cause a dreadful allergic reaction, but you'll survive. Bed bugs have always been around; overuse of toxic pesticides drove them away for a few decades, but fortunately, we now realize that the chemicals were far more dangerous than the bugs. Notorious victim: You.