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Hoverflies (probably) can’t sense gravity

hoverfly

Hoverflies (Episyrphus balteatus, shown) use vision and airflow, not gravity, to figure out where they are in space, researchers posit.

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Hoverflies not only defy gravity, they may not even know it’s there.

Insects known for their aerial acrobatics — like hoverflies and dragonflies — have to execute twists and turns with extreme precision. Whether they use gravity to orient themselves and control their altitude has been a mystery.

Rather than sending flies into space to test such abilities, Roman Goulard of Aix-Marseille University in France and his colleagues took a basic approach to simulating microgravity: Drop hoverflies (Episyrphus balteatus) in different lab environments and observe how the insects react to free-falling. In a dark box, hoverflies were slow to beat their wings and sense they were falling, and 70 percent crashed. In a light box, the insects had better reaction speed, but many still crashed. Finally, in a box with both light and striped walls (to create a visual pattern), they reacted quickly and crashed only 10 percent of the time.

Though impossible to rule out entirely, the insects don't seem to have a means or internal organ (like mammals’ inner ear) to sense acceleration. Instead, hoverflies must rely on just sight and airflow to figure out where they are in space, the researchers argue August 16 in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Animals,, Conservation,, Agriculture

Evidence piles up for popular pesticides' link to pollinator problems

By Helen Thompson 5:32pm, August 17, 2016
Neonicotinoid pesticides linked to population declines in California butterflies and wild bee extinctions in Great Britain.
Animals,, Ecology

Female fish have a fail-safe for surprise sperm attacks

By Helen Thompson 1:30pm, August 16, 2016
A Mediterranean fish provides evidence that, even after laying their eggs, females can still influence who fertilizes them.
Astronomy

This year’s Perseid meteor shower will be especially flashy

By Christopher Crockett 11:30am, August 11, 2016
This year’s Perseid meteor shower could produce up to 200 meteors per hour as Earth plows through the debris trail of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.
Animals,, Genetics,, Evolution

Colugo genome reveals gliders as primate cousins

By Helen Thompson 7:00am, August 11, 2016
New genetic analysis suggests gliding mammals called colugos are actually sisters to modern primates.
Genetics,, Neuroscience

Scientists get a glimpse of chemical tagging in live brains

By Tina Hesman Saey 2:00pm, August 10, 2016
For the first time scientists can see where molecular tags known as epigenetic marks are placed in the brain.
Neuroscience,, Health

Red blood cells sense low oxygen in the brain

By Laura Sanders 12:00pm, August 4, 2016
Red blood cells sense low oxygen and speed to the scene, a new study suggests.
Chemistry,, Technology,, Science & Society

X-rays reveal portrait hiding beneath Degas masterpiece

By Helen Thompson 9:00am, August 4, 2016
X-ray technique reveals an additional painting hiding behind Edgar Degas’ "Portrait of a Woman."
Animals

Smart mice have better odds of survival

By Helen Thompson 2:00pm, August 3, 2016
African striped mice (Rhabdomys pumilio) may survive summer droughts by their wits, a study suggests.
Health

Zika-carrying mosquitoes eluding control efforts in Miami

By Meghan Rosen 4:49pm, August 1, 2016
Florida adds 10 new cases of locally acquired Zika infection, prompting the CDC to issue travel warning for pregnant women. Mosquitoes in Miami may be resistant to insecticides.
Health

Florida mosquitoes likely spreading Zika

By Meghan Rosen 3:14pm, July 29, 2016
Mosquitoes in Florida carrying the Zika virus are probably to blame for four recent cases of infection.
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