Backpacks For Dragonflies: Inside The Janelia Farm Research Campus (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Backpacks For Dragonflies: Inside The Janelia Farm Research Campus

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we are winging it. I mean, Winging It, as in that's the theme of the show. It isn't like we don't know what's coming next, but for many of the people we'll meet over the next hour, more often than not, that's exactly the case. We'll hear from a longtime D.C.-based teacher of improvisation.

MR. SHAWN WESTFALL

00:00:26
Right. And as I've said before, if I start talking in crazy, silly, Scottish accent, what do you know about me immediately?

SHEIR

00:00:33
And we'll hang out with a musician who's all about experimentation and play.

SHEIR

00:00:42
We'll also take a more literal look at our Winging It theme, with stories about creatures and critters that take to the skies.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1

00:00:48
I think birders have this reputation for being these sort of nerdy people, but I don't think that that's really true.

SHEIR

00:00:54
But before we get to all that, we'll visit a place in Loudoun County, Va…

SHEIR

00:00:58
Are we like in the bowels of the place or this where you guys walk normally?

MR. ANTHONY LEONARDO

00:01:01
Yes. That's exactly where we are.

SHEIR

00:01:02
Okay.

LEONARDO

00:01:02
We're in the bowels of…

SHEIR

00:01:03
...where hundreds of people wing it every day.

LEONARDO

00:01:06
So most of the lab space, where we do experimental work, is upstairs.

SHEIR

00:01:08
...sometimes in more ways than one.

LEONARDO

00:01:11
Okay. So this is where we do these sort of indoor flight experiments on how dragonflies catch prey, basically.

SHEIR

00:01:18
And this guy is one of those people. His name is Anthony Leonardo. And the bespectacled, pony-tailed young scientist has led us to the window of the Dragonfly Flight Arena, deep within the main building of the Janelia Farm Research Campus.

SHEIR

00:01:32
Because this is radio, can you kind of describe what it is we're looking at here?

LEONARDO

00:01:34
Describe the room? Yeah. So the room is 15 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet in size. So it's like a big cube. And at the top of the room we have a huge number of very bright lights, and so the room is sort of lit to look like noon on a summer day.

SHEIR

00:01:50
Leonardo has furthered the summer-day theme by keeping the room at a steady 82 degrees, installing artificial grass, and providing a heaping helping of fruit flies for his dragonflies to eat. He's also covered the walls with blown-up photographs of the trees, grass and flowers you'll find all over Janelia Farm's 689 acres.

LEONARDO

00:02:08
So, you know, now it has enough appearance of an outdoor sort of realistic environment that dragonflies think, this is a good place for me to hang out and forage.

SHEIR

00:02:17
Leonardo and his team actually catch the dragonflies on the Janelia Campus, which the Howard Hughes Medical Institute built in 2006, so scientists could set up shop in a collaborative and flexible environment.

LEONARDO

00:02:30
It's internally funded, so you don't apply for any grants; there's no teaching. So all you have to do is your work.

SHEIR

00:02:36
And if you head a particular lab, as Anthony Leonardo does, you're pretty much given free rein to study whatever you fancy for a renewable period of five years. A topic that's long fascinated Leonardo is this idea of prey capture.

LEONARDO

00:02:51
Prey capture is essentially a problem of predicting where a moving target is going to be in the future. And so this is both a challenging problem, but also a deeply interesting one because prediction is sort of a fundamentally sort of interesting thing about what people and other animals do. You're trying to figure out what's going to happen in the future.

SHEIR

00:03:08
And while you're doing that, there is so much going on, and so much scientists don't yet understand. It's like this highly choreographed dance of senses sensing, neurons firing, muscles responding.

LEONARDO

00:03:20
So this is sort of analogous to like a football player catching a ball. And so the objective of the football player is really to watch that motion and then alter its own sort of body movement to sort of reach it as some future time coordinate.

SHEIR

00:03:33
Not a bad metaphor, but when you're talking about motion, there's a major difference between footballs and fruit flies, the latter of which, by the way, Leonardo gets from some of his fruit-fly scientist buddies upstairs.

SHEIR

00:03:45
Before you go on, I just want to say, some fruit-flies have been sort of zigging and zagging around us as we've been talking. And they fly like crazy. I mean, like, they're not going in one direction in like that football player running after a ball. They are all over the place.

LEONARDO

00:03:56
It's more complicated than the football player running after the ball, that's right. But the more complicated it gets, the harder it is, even for a dragonfly.

SHEIR

00:04:03
And that's saying a lot, since Leonardo considers dragonflies to be the most sophisticated hunting and flying machines in nature.

LEONARDO

00:04:10
Outdoors, they catch maybe 95 percent of what they go after, which is sort of phenomenal. I mean, something like a lion does like 15 percent.

SHEIR

00:04:17
But here's the thing, compared with a lion, or that football player, dragonflies are tiny.

LEONARDO

00:04:22
A half a gram would be a big dragonfly.

SHEIR

00:04:24
But not so tiny they can't carry a miniature wireless system that records and transmits their neural activity as they zoom around. Leonardo calls it a telemetry backpack.

LEONARDO

00:04:35
The first two generations of this thing we also called a backpack, and we attached it on the other side of the body. And this caused great confusion for everybody because they're like, it's a front pack. So now it literally is a backpack, though. Right?

SHEIR

00:04:45
Right. I mean, it doesn't have padded, adjustable straps and a pocket for your cell phone, but it does have this little computer chip with electrodes that stick into the back of an anaesthetized dragonfly. And once the animal starts flying and foraging, the backpack detects and sends out signals from what Leonardo calls the steering neurons.

LEONARDO

00:05:04
The animal's going to fly, catch things, and we're going to monitor the signals coming out of these neurons while the animal's doing it.

SHEIR

00:05:11
And they're going to shoot videos of the animal, at a whopping 1,000 frames per second, to get a more macroscopic view of what's going on.

LEONARDO

00:05:19
Like, how does the body move through the air towards the prey? Like, what is the flight pattern look like? Just as you might look at the flight pattern of your United flight going from Los Angeles to New York.

SHEIR

00:05:28
Once Leonardo goes through all the videos, and analyzes all the signals from the backpack, his next job is to look at all that data and say…

LEONARDO

00:05:35
Well, what the heck does it mean? And we have lots of, you know, ideas and models on how to do that, but at least you can kind of measure all of the relevant information. And then you have the greatest hope probably of actually understanding mechanistically how are the pieces are combined. I mean, otherwise, you're trying to assemble a 10,000-piece puzzle with 100 pieces.

SHEIR

00:05:52
Anthony Leonardo doesn't have all 10,000 pieces yet, but he's well on his way. And he'll soon find out if he'll be able to get even closer, since his Janelia Farm contract goes up for renewal in July 2014.

SHEIR

00:06:09
To see photographs of Anthony Leonardo's Dragonfly Flight Arena and to watch a close-up, slow-motion video of a dragonfly catching a fruit-fly, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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