When lost in the desert at night, or in dense forests, people tend to walk in circles. This is because the seemingly simple act of walking in a straight line involves a complex interplay of various sensory modalities, the motor system and cognition. A ball-rolling dung beetle released in the same type of uncharted territory, does not walk in circles, but rather keeps steadfastly to a chosen bearing. The main goal of this project is unravel the sensory and neuronal architecture of the newly discovered ‘snapshot compass’, that supports orientation over all continents and terrestrial habitats on earth (except Antarctica). This goal will be realized through a fusion of biology, bio-informatics and mathematics.
A quickly growing pool of studies indicates that neuronal networks are modulated in a context-dependent manner. Therefore, to truly understand how this compass works, and to formulate the core computational algorithms underlying this remarkable system, I aim to obtain the first ever brain recordings from the compass of a freely orienting insect. Is this possible? Certainly! But only in an animal with a robust orientation behaviour, and that is strong enough to carry a little backpack of electronics. The large dung-beetles, with their easily manipulated orientation behavior, offers a unique opportunity to attain this holy grail of neuroethology.
The beetle’s compass makes use of a large range of celestial cues, which can vary drastically in availability and strength. While the challenge of cue integration has been solved effectively in the compass system of the beetles, it remains a key problem within the field of cognition and perception, as well as for the design of artificial intelligence systems. Taken together, almost two decades of studies of the dung beetle compass system have paved the way for this timely and unique opportunity, that will impact the advancement of science well outside the field of biology.