University of Chicago Big Ideas Generator


Big Question: Complex visual discrimination in the insect brain

University of Chicago Big Questions

Principal Investigators: Stephanie Palmer, Organismal Biology and Anatomy ; Marcus Kronforst, Ecology and Evolution

Funding Type: Seed

Focus Area: Information

Big Idea: Complex decision-making is usually thought to be the domain of humans or at least mammals, but more and more evidence reveals that even insects are capable of this kind of computation.  Paper wasps display a form of facial recognition, honeybees can perform exquisite color pattern discrimination and monarch butterflies can navigate accurately over thousands of miles.  Our hypothesis is that we can make progress understanding the enormous complexity of the human brain by starting with these simple systems, which nonetheless perform amazing computations. Heliconius butterflies select mates based on visual patterning cues on their wings, and display a form of reproductive isolation by carefully using this selection to exclude mates with only minor pattern variations. My lab has recently begun a project to investigate the neural underpinnings of mate selection bias in butterflies.  We are recording the spectral sensitivity in the photoreceptors of the live butterfly eye and from neurons further downstream in the color vision pathway. Our SEED grant will fund the building of a UV/blue/green reflected light display, to mimic more closely the natural color input to the butterfly visual system.

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