On summer evenings when I open up the front and back doors of my house to let the cool breeze flow through, there always seems to be one or two flies that try to flow through, too. And they always end up smacking themselves repeatedly against the living room window and then frenetically buzzing up and down the pane trying to get out. Now, my question is why did they come in in the first place if they’re just going to turn around and want out (although my cats do the same thing)? And if the door is still open, why don’t they just use that?
Seems rather dim-witted, doesn’t it? Imagine my surprise when I Googled fly brains (yes, I do things like that) and discovered that a group of 40 Taiwanese scientists, computer programmers and engineers are spending about $1 million annually to study fly brains, and have been doing so for the past decade! If I were a Taiwanese taxpayer, I would have some pretty serious questions about the financing for all that research.
While I thought ten years was over the top, I then came upon an article that mentioned 50 years of research, after which it is still unclear as to how nerve cells are interconnected in the brain of a fly. I know that mystery keeps me up at nights, how about you? The lengthy studies might be explained in part due to the difficulty in attaching electrodes to the tiny fly brains. Yes, I actually read that.
Flies have the capability of processing vast amounts of information about motion and movements while in flight, even outperforming computers in this feat. Maybe scientists are jealous and need to figure out the fly’s secret to doing this so that we, too, can perceive every movement involved in smacking our heads against a window pane.
Even more research dollars have been spent on studying the memory capacity of fruit flies. Fruit flies (which are respectfully known as Drosophila melanogaster in scientific circles) are subjected to a combination of odors and electric shocks, and then tested to see if they can remember which odor is bad news (eliciting shocks) and which odors are okay. They must perform pretty well on these tests or we wouldn’t keep studying them. Or maybe we just can't remember the results of the memory tests so we have to keep repeating them. But the next time you see a fruit fly buzzing around your kitchen in a seemingly random manner, don’t be so quick to swat at it. It is probably just lost in thought reminiscing about the good old days when you used to leave ripe bananas lying on the countertop.
Applying electric shock for the sake of an experiment sounds like cruelty to fruit flies, if you ask me. And that’s not all. It wasn’t bad enough when scientists glued flies down to hold them in place while they studied them. Now they want to be able to study them in flight, so they came up with a way to tether the flies by putting their heads in a clamp, leaving their wings free to flap. In the online article “Brain Activity Measured While Flies Fly,” study researcher Michael Dickinson of Caltech is quoted as saying, "The challenge was to be able to gain access to the brain in a way that didn't compromise the animal's ability to fly, or to perform behavior. We couldn't just rip the brain out of the body and put it into a dish." I bet they tried.
Now that I know about the fly’s brain, I’m not so cavalier about splatting it against my living room window. Okay, so it only gives me pause for a couple of seconds, and then it’s game on. I keep an old tea towel rolled up lengthwise on the arm of my couch and when a fly comes to the front window I snap at it with the towel. If the towel is rolled tightly enough and if I snap sharply enough, I can bypass the fly’s motion and movement sensors and it’s is a goner. I suppose I could invest in a fly swatter someday, but that just seems so unsportsmanlike.