For the first time ever, a research team may have just found how monarch butterflies find the way south during their annual, 2,000-mile long trip from Canada to central Mexico. The tiny insects are famous for their spectacular migration and for the vast distances they can travel without losing their way.
Their great migration has puzzled biologists and the public alike for decades, but a group of researchers believe they cracked the mystery. Biologists and mathematicians teamed up to simulate the insects’ internal compass which helps them stay on route.
A research paper on the findings was published this week in Cell Reports.
Eli Shlizerman, a senior researcher involved in the study and Applied Mathematics professor at the University of Washington, said in a recent interview that he has been fascinated with how neurobiological systems work and what knowledge we may gain from them.
Shlizerman said monarch butterflies’ great migration had been a huge mystery as scientists couldn’t tell how the animals can travel such vast distances and not get lost. In fact, after just two months of flight, they arrive at their winter grounds while also saving energy.
Shlizerman and a team of biologists from the University of Massachusetts developed a system to track signals from the insects’ eyes and antennae. Scientists found that monarchs find their way solely on cues provided by the Sun.
To navigate, they need just two pieces of information: time of the day and the Sun’s location above the horizon. Shlizerman added that the animals process the info in their internal compass, which helps them maintain direction south throughout the day.
After learning what data gets into the internal compass, the team developed a computer model that can mimic the biological mechanism. Researchers found that monarchs have ‘timekeeping’ neural cells in their antennae and ‘azimuth’ neural cells in their large, complex eyes. This set of neurons keeps track of the Sun’s position.
The model shows that the insects’ internal compass constantly updates information on Sun’s location in the sky and tells the system whether a correction is needed for the butterflies to stay on course.
Shlizerman now dreams of a robotic system that could use the exact mechanism to navigate by the Sun. His team plans to design a robotic monarch butterfly that can follow monarchs around and keep track of their entire annual journey.
The bot could prove useful especially now when monarch populations have started declining.
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