Dragonflies: beautiful and smart according to Adelaide University (Australia) researchers

[downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tiffany_dragonfly_hg.jpg] Attribution: pendant Dragonfly - replica from the lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany (50 cm diameter, 20 cm hight, about 400 glass pieces), Own work, Hannes Grobe 19:33, 20 June 2007 (UTC) Permission Own work, share alike, attribution required (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

[downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tiffany_dragonfly_hg.jpg] Attribution: pendant Dragonfly – replica from the lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany (50 cm diameter, 20 cm hight, about 400 glass pieces), Own work, Hannes Grobe 19:33, 20 June 2007 (UTC) Permission Own work, share alike, attribution required (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

Long a subject of inspiration for artists, dragonflies have now been observed to exhibit signs of selective intelligence similar to human selective intelligence. From the Dec. 20, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

In a discovery that may prove important for cognitive science, our understanding of nature and applications for robot vision, researchers at the University of Adelaide have found evidence that the dragonfly is capable of higher-level thought processes when hunting its prey.

The discovery, to be published online today in the journal Current Biology [link to article which behind a paywall], is the first evidence that an invertebrate animal has brain cells for selective attention, which has so far only been demonstrated in primates.

Here’s how the researchers made the observation (from the EurekAlert news release),

Using a tiny glass probe with a tip that is only 60 nanometers wide – 1500 times smaller than the width of a human hair – the researchers have discovered neuron activity in the dragonfly’s brain that enables this selective attention.

They found that when presented with more than one visual target, the dragonfly brain cell ‘locks on’ to one target and behaves as if the other targets don’t exist.

“Selective attention is fundamental to humans’ ability to select and respond to one sensory stimulus in the presence of distractions,” Dr Wiederman [Dr. Steven Wiederman, University of Adelaide] says.

Wiederman’s research partner suggests this observation has the potential for a number of widespread applications,

“Recent studies reveal similar mechanisms at work in the primate brain, but you might expect it there. We weren’t expecting to find something so sophisticated in lowly insects from a group that’s been around for 325 million years.

“We believe our work will appeal to neuroscientists and engineers alike. 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,” he [Associate Professor David O’Carroll, University of Adelaide] says.

You can find more information including pictures and a video in the Dec. 21, 2012 University of Adelaide news release.

2 thoughts on “Dragonflies: beautiful and smart according to Adelaide University (Australia) researchers

  1. Al

    Why do humans think they are the only beings on this planet with a brain? I have seen many times over the years, the awesomeness of dragonfly habits in action. They are quite playful in my opinion, but I guess insects don’t have the brain capacity to think and do things outside of hunting and mating (as some believe).

    In a recent occasion I was dumbfounded by a dragonfly’s curiosity. I pulled out my cellphone and two flew around me twice. Before I could make it to the car one of them just stopped 2 feet in front of me. I paused immediately. It stood there for a whole 30 second. So, I pulled out my cellphone to record it, and it didn’t move. I got closer and closer. I had to be nearly 8-10 inches away filming it and it still didn’t fly off. It seemed curious and started turning allowing me to film it. It was probably the most interaction I have ever had with an insect. May put it on YouTube for all to see.

    Just the other day I waved my hand around and then held still and it landed on my finger. Totally amazing.

    Keep researching, you are on to something here.

  2. Maryse de la Giroday Post author

    Dear Al, Thanks for reading and commenting on dragonflies. Your suggestions that insects are playful and curious harken back to childhood when we seem to understand that intuitively and then, as we grow to adulthood, it’s educated out of us. Thank you for the reminder. Cheers, Maryse

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