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Neural coding underlying the cue preference for celestial orientation

  • Basil el Jundi
  • Eric Warrant
  • Marcus J Byrne
  • Lana Khaldy
  • Emily Baird
  • Jochen Smolka
  • Marie Dacke
Publishing year: 2015
Language: English
Pages: 11395-11400
Publication/Series: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Volume: 112
Issue: 36
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: National Acad Sciences

Abstract english

Diurnal and nocturnal African dung beetles use celestial cues, such

as the sun, the moon, and the polarization pattern, to roll dung

balls along straight paths across the savanna. Although nocturnal

beetles move in the same manner through the same environment

as their diurnal relatives, they do so when light conditions are at

least 1 million-fold dimmer. Here, we show, for the first time to

our knowledge, that the celestial cue preference differs between

nocturnal and diurnal beetles in a manner that reflects their

contrasting visual ecologies. We also demonstrate how these cue

preferences are reflected in the activity of compass neurons in the

brain. At night, polarized skylight is the dominant orientation cue

for nocturnal beetles. However, if we coerce them to roll during

the day, they instead use a celestial body (the sun) as their primary

orientation cue. Diurnal beetles, however, persist in using a

celestial body for their compass, day or night. Compass neurons

in the central complex of diurnal beetles are tuned only to the

sun, whereas the same neurons in the nocturnal species switch

exclusively to polarized light at lunar light intensities. Thus, these

neurons encode the preferences for particular celestial cues and alter

their weighting according to ambient light conditions. This flexible

encoding of celestial cue preferences relative to the prevailing visual

scenery provides a simple, yet effective, mechanism for enabling

visual orientation at any light intensity.


  • Biological Sciences


  • ISSN: 1091-6490
Emily Baird
E-mail: emily [dot] baird [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se


Functional zoology

+46 46 222 96 18

+46 72 700 55 55



Research group

Lund Vision Group


Doctoral students and postdocs

PhD Students, main supervisor

Pierre Tichit

PhD Students, assistant supervisor

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