How flies avoid the swat: they act like fighter jets

Time lapse images from a high speed video show how a fruit fly startled by a looming shadow (off camera at the bottom right) performs a rapid roll to bank away from the threat, in this undated picture courtesy of F. Muijres at the University of Washi
Time lapse images from a high speed video show how a fruit fly startled by a looming shadow (off camera at the bottom right) performs a rapid roll to bank away from the threat, in this undated picture courtesy of F. Muijres at the University of Washington in Seattle. When scared, fruit flies bank the same way fighter jets do, tilting and rolling through the air, but they do it quicker than the blink of an eye, US researchers said on Thursday, April 11, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - When scared, fruit flies bank the same way fighter jets do, tilting and rolling through the air, but they do it quicker than the blink of an eye, US researchers said on Thursday.

The findings in the journal Science suggest that flies may be relying on a special set of senses to help them avoid getting swatted.

Researchers used three high-speed cameras to analyse how fruit flies avoided an impending collision.

While they normally beat their wings 200 times a second, if threatened they could reorient themselves in a single wing beat, and then speed away.

"We discovered that fruit flies alter course in less than one one-hundredth of a second, 50 times faster than we blink our eyes, and which is faster than we ever imagined," said Michael Dickinson, professor of biology at the University of Washington.

Fruit flies, or Drosophila hydei, are about as big as a sesame seed but have a super fast visual system to help them survive a world full of predators, he said.

"The brain of the fly performs a very sophisticated calculation, in a very short amount of time, to determine where the danger lies and exactly how to bank for the best escape, doing something different if the threat is to the side, straight ahead or behind," Dickinson said.

"A fly with a brain the size of a salt grain has the behavioural repertoire nearly as complex as a much larger animal such as a mouse."