In a string of recent papers, scientists have pinpointed key features of the dragonfly’s brain, eyes and wings that allow it to hunt so unerringly. One research team has determined that the nervous system of a dragonfly displays an almost human capacity for selective attention, able to focus on a single prey as it flies amid a cloud of similarly fluttering insects, just as a guest at a party can attend to a friend’s words while ignoring the background chatter.
Other researchers have identified a kind of master circuit of 16 neurons that connect the dragonfly’s brain to its flight motor center in the thorax. With the aid of that neuronal package, a dragonfly can track a moving target, calculate a trajectory to intercept that target and subtly adjust its path as needed.
The scientists found evidence that a dragonfly plots its course to intercept through a variant of “an old mariner’s trick,” said Robert M. Olberg of Union College, who reported the research with his colleagues in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If you’re heading north on a boat and you see another boat moving, say, 30 degrees to your right, and if as the two of you barrel forward the other boat remains at that 30-degree spot in your field of view, vector mechanics dictate that your boats will crash: better slow down, speed up or turn aside.
In a similar manner, as a dragonfly closes in on a meal, it maintains an image of the moving prey on the same spot, the same compass point of its visual field. “The image of the prey is getting bigger, but if it’s always on the same spot of the retina, the dragonfly will intercept its target,” said Paloma T. Gonzalez-Bellido, an author of the new report who now works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.