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How flies escape the swatter

A flying fruit fly (Drosophila hydei).
[Photo by Floris van Breuge l and Florian Muijres]

Anyone who's ever swatted at a fly knows how fast the small, winged insects can be. Now, a new study shows how flies are able to make such quick escapes—and the way they do it is not what researchers had expected.

Florian Muijres and colleagues used high-speed cameras and small, winged robots to study how Drosophila melanogaster, or the common fruit fly, escapes from approaching threats. Their videos revealed that the flies rely on rapid banked turns that are set in motion with just a few quick beats of the insect's wings.

Instead of keeping their bodies level and rotating like an airplane that is making a small turn with its tail rudder, the flies "pitch" and "roll" their bodies at the same time, according to the researchers. This maneuver requires the flies to do more work, but it also happens five times faster than the flies' normal in-flight turns, they say.

Muijres and his team filmed 3,566 wing beats from 92 different fruit fly escapes and then recreated the wing beats with their small, flapping robots in order to confirm their results. Based on their findings, the researchers suggest that the flies might have specialized sensory-motor circuits in their brains to help them to respond to threats so quickly.