Dragonfly backpacks record brains and motion

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

dragonfly backpack
This is the cute little backpack the dragonflies wear. According to Leonardo, it weighs less than a couple grains of rice.

When you catch a moving object like a basketball, it feels as easy as one-two-three, right? All you have to do is keep your eye on the ball, raise your hands, and catch it! Well, that may be so, but there’s actually a ton of processes going on in our nerves, and scientists don’t know exactly what they are. In order to find out, researchers are strapping special backpacks to dragonflies as they hunt!

Why are they watching insects instead of mammals? Basically, the dragonflies have far fewer neurons – brain cells – than warm-blooded furry creatures, so it’s easier to understand what’s going on. But, that doesn’t mean the bugs’ movements aren’t complex either! When a dragonfly wants to snack on an insect, it has to not only keep track of its prey, but also prepare to stick out six legs to land on the flying lunch! That sure seems like a lot to monitor, huh?

Well, that’s where the backpacks come in. They’re not the kind that come with zippers and pencil holders though. Instead, they’re tiny transmitters made up of antennas, green chips, and wires. The entire bundle is glued onto a dragonfly’s back and connected to individual neurons inside the insect, ready to record flight. “While the animal is performing this sophisticated interception behavior, that little backpack is acting like a radio that’s broadcasting the signals from those neurons back to our computer,” said neuroscientist Anthony Leonardo, who is carrying out the study in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Apparently, dragonflies catch their prey by keeping them in the same place on their visual field, almost like a missile locking onto a target! Researchers from the University of Washington claim this model provides a glimpse into the complex processes that go on in the human mind. Still, there’s a lot more research to be done before our much more sophisticated brains can be understood, but these buzzing dragonflies offer a great start.

Images courtesy of National Geographic on YouTube.