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The neuronal substrate of compass orientation

Insects, with their miniature brains and eyes, are undoubtedly one of the most capable navigators in the animal kingdom. Dung beetles are known to use a large repertoire of sky compass cues as their only reference during straight-line orientation. But how are all these signals processed in the beetle brain to develop a precise internal sky compass? Moreover, how is this network designed in an animal that relies on a pure visual sky compass?

Fan shaped neuron in insect brain

In this project, our aim is to understand the neural network underlying the processing of skylight signals in the dung beetle brain. To obtain this, we analyze the neural mechanisms anatomically and physiologically and correlate this to the behavioral output of the sky compass network.

Using immunohistochemical and imagine techniques combined with 3D modelling, we are characterizing the general brain architecture and the sky compass network of the dung beetle brain. Can we find similarities to the sky compass network that has been described in migrating insects? Where exactly are the differences in the neural mechanisms? To reveal this, we present simulated sky compass signals to the beetles and investigate the neural response of compass neurons through intracellular recordings. In addition, we are analyzing the output of the internal compass through behavioral studies in the field and in the laboratory. Which relevance does each sky compass signal have for the straight-line orientation of the beetles? The ultimate goal is to obtain a full picture of sky compass orientation by bringing together brain activity and behavior in one model organism.

Reconstruction of beetle brain
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Dung beetle on dung ball


  • Marcus Byrne, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
  • Keram Pfeiffer, University of Marburg, Germany