We already know that "higher" animals such as mammals can track the trajectory of moving objects, and anticipate where they're heading. Thanks to new research carried out by Australia's University of Adelaide and Sweden's Lund University, however, we now also know that dragonflies can do the same thing. It is hoped that the finding could lead to advances in human technology.

Upon examining the dragonfly Hemicordulia, it was discovered that the animal possesses neurons that allow it to focus on small objects (such as prey insects) moving over complex backgrounds – this is similar to the manner in which people can track a thrown ball moving past the stands of a stadium, for example.

The scientists monitored the activity of these neurons, as a target object moved through an immobilized dragonfly's field of vision (63 of the dragonflies were actually tested). The object was presented on a high-definition LCD screen.

First of all, it was found that the neurons focused on an area just in front of the object, as opposed to being focussed right on the target itself. Additionally, however, if the object were to suddenly disappear from the screen, the neurons would continue to shift their focus forward in the direction of travel, anticipating where the object might reappear. This predictive ability appears to be based on the previous path along which the object had moved.

"This is an exciting discovery, and it aids our understanding of how single neurons make advanced predictions based on past history," say Adelaide's Dr. Steven Wiederman. "Our team is convinced that these results will have practical applications, especially in the development of artificial control and vision systems, such as self-steering vehicles and bionic vision."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal eLife.

Source: University of Adelaide