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

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Backpacks For Dragonflies: Inside The Janelia Farm Research Campus

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This dragonfly has just metamorphosed from its nymph stage, and will soon be released into the Dragonfly Flight Arena.
Rachel Grossman
This dragonfly has just metamorphosed from its nymph stage, and will soon be released into the Dragonfly Flight Arena.

In Loudoun County, just off Leesburg Pike, there's a place where hundreds of people "wing it" every day — sometimes in more ways than one.

Anthony Leonardo is one of those people, and today 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.

"The room is 15 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet," he explains. "So it's like a big cube. 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."

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.

"So now it has enough appearance of an outdoor realistic environment that dragonflies think, 'this is a good place for me to hang out and forage,'" he says.

Dance of the dragonflies

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.

"It's internally funded, so you don't apply for any grants; there's no teaching," Leonardo says. "So all you have to do is your work."

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

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

While that's happening, there's so much going on, and so much that scientists don't yet understand. It's like a highly choreographed dance of senses sensing, neurons firing and muscles responding.

"This is sort of analogous to a football player catching a ball," Leonardo says. "And so the objective of the football player is really to watch that motion and alter its own body movement to reach it as some future time coordinate."

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.

Monitoring dragonflies

Leonardo says dragonflies are the most sophisticated hunting and flying machines in nature: "Outdoors, they catch maybe 95 percent of what they go after, which is phenomenal," he says. "Something like a lion does like 15 percent."

Here's the thing, though: compared with a lion, or that football player, dragonflies are tiny. 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."

"The first two generations of this thing we also called a backpack, and we attached it on the other side of the body," he explains. "This caused great confusion for everybody because they were like 'It's a front pack!' So now it literally is a backpack."

Granted, 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 go into the back of the anaesthetized dragonfly. Once the animal starts flying and foraging, the backpack detects and sends out signals from what Leonardo calls the "steering neurons."

"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," Leonardo says.

He and his team also shoot videos of the animal — at a whopping 1,000 frames per second — to get a more macroscopic view of what's going on. What they're looking for are things such as how the body moves through the air toward the prey, why the flight pattern looks like, and how it moves through space.

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 figure out what it all means.

"We have lots of ideas and models for how to do that," he says. "But at least you can kind of measure all of the relevant information. And then you have the greatest hope probably of ever actually understanding mechanistically how the pieces are combined."

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


[Music: "On the Wing" by Owl City from Ocean Eyes]

Video: Dragonfly foraging for food

Video courtesy of Anthony Leonardo, Janelia Farm/HHMI

Photos: Inside the Janelia Farm Research Campus

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