Why Are Flies So Darn Hard To Swat?


Have you ever wondered why flies are hard to swat? Michael Dickinson, a researcher in biomechanics of insect flight, has the answer. At the mere hint of a threat, flies adjust their preflight stance to flee in the opposite direction, ensuring a clean getaway.

“These movements are made very rapidly, within about 200 milliseconds, but within that time the animal determines where the threat is coming from and activates an appropriate set of movements to position its legs and wings,” Michael Dickinson of the California Institute of Technology stated. “This illustrates how rapidly the fly`s brain can process sensory information into an appropriate motor response.”

Dickinson`s team studied this process in fruit flies using high-speed digital imaging equipment and a fancy fly swatter. In response to a threat from the front, the fly moves its middle legs forward, leans back and raises its back legs for a backward takeoff. If the threat is from the side, the fly leans the other way before takeoff.

The findings offer new insight into the fly nervous system, and lends a few clues on how to outsmart a fly. “It is best not to swat at the fly`s starting position,” Dickinson said. Instead, aim for the escape route. Dickinson, a bioengineer, has devoted his life`s work to the study of insect flight. He has built a tiny robotic fly called ‘Robofly’ and a 3-D visual flight simulator called ‘Fly-O-Vision’.

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