Thursday, August 28, 2008

CIT claims to outsmart flies..

No, I'm not going to turn this into an animal behavior blog, though it's tempting.  But this one is irresistible to me.

Big headline in the BBC Science section: 

Researchers in the US say they have solved the mystery of why flies are so hard to swat.

Be still, my heart!  lol!!

If you'll read the brief article, you'll be amazed to learn that scientists at the world renowned California Institute of Technology have discovered- finally- that - who could have ever imagined- flies are AWARE of fly swatters!  

Flies actually- hard as it is to believe!- SEE them, and plan how to jump out of their way!!

Crikey.  Another huge international headline I could have had for myself- but failed to- because it's just so totally freaking obvious.

Anybody who has actually spent time trying to swat a pesky problem fly learns this- unequivocally- in the first 2 minutes of human-fly warfare.

There is a REAL problem here, and this is a perfect illustration of it.  There is a class of scientist out there who claim, and believe, that we know nothing - if it has not been brought into a laboratory, and been proven in careful controlled experiments.

Thereby discarding tens of thousands of years of totally accurate and intelligent observations.

And - setting us back, in fact making us dumber than we were.  This is a growing trend in academia - find something really obvious and prove it.  Then publish.  Instant acclaim!

The upshot of this article is: 

"We've found that when the fly makes planning movements prior to take-off, it takes into account its body position at the time it first sees the threat," he explained.
"Our experiments showed that the fly somehow 'knows' whether it needs to make large or small postural changes.
"This means the fly must integrate visual information from its eyes which tell it where the threat is approaching from, with mechano-sensory information from its legs, which tells it how to move to reach the proper pre-flight pose."
So can this data make us more efficient swatters? Possibly. It is best to creep up on a fly with stealth, as they are unable to register slow movements.
When it comes to striking the blow, Professor Dickinson said it was a good idea not to aim at the fly's starting position.
"It's best to aim a bit forward of its location and try and anticipate where the fly will jump when it first sees your swatter," he explained.

If you can stop laughing- (gosh!  a fly is a functioning integrated organism??  no!!) - Professor Dickinson's advice shows that he actually has NOT experimented with fly swatting techniques.

My own advice on swatting flies?  Simple.  And based on years of vast swatting experience and experimentation.  And no, they are NOT  "unable" to register small movement- they just see it as not imminently threatening.  Watch the flies- it's obvious.

A fly "on the alert" for a potential swat is basically - frozen.  It's not moving- it's watching.  You move the swatter a millimeter- and it moves its body a millimeter-  but it can't keep doing that forever, can it?  Hard to find food if you're always on alert.

A really scared fly may stay on alert for a very long time (from the human perspective) - up to 30 seconds, or even longer.  That's too long for most fly-hunting humans' attention span- but it's not too long for the fly- whose life and entire existence depend on making the right response here.

Move your swatter slowly into a good position, without spooking the fly into flying.  Hold it there, without moving it.  Wait.  

At some point-always- the frozen fly will start to walk- or clean its face.  Whack it instantly, with no backswing.  Because just at that point- it is NOT on guard; it has decided that hovering threat is not a threat, and cannot - cannot- jump quickly out of the way.  The instant of change from "on high alert" to "not" - is a vulnerable point.  As the professor notes- later, while the fly is walking, grooming, etc, it is again more difficult to catch.

Earthshaking information!  Aren't you thrilled!  The apocalypse has been averted!  


Anonymous said...

Oh, my. Must've been a slow news day, no wars, no foreclosures for the media to report.
I seem to remember learning in 4th grade that flies could see pretty much 360 degrees, which is why it's so hard to sneak up on them.
I've been doing a little scientific stuff myself the last couple of years, trying to breed a more intelligent fly. What I do is when there are flies buzzing around the windows I open the window for a couple of minutes. The smarter ones will fly outside. I close the window and kill the remaining ones. I'm hoping to eventually breed a race of flies that can find their own way out of my house.

Nancy M. said...

That is the funniest post! It's crazy how people actually study these kinds of things. And crazier still, they waste tons of money doing it!

Tina Cardone said...

Who funds this research?? I have spent very little time swatting flies, but do enjoy catching them. As a child I could sneak up on them from behind and catch them in my hand. I always thought they jumped backwards and thats why they seemed so elusive.

MissAnna said...

Haha, I love it! Maybe instead of building a better mousetrap, we just need a book/thesis to help us understand the behavior of household creatures. Or perhaps just a weekly blog feature?

Anonymous said...

I agree that there is a percentage of scientific research that only proves the obvious. However, I also feel that testing a widely held belief is a valid scientific pursuit. How else prove that the earth is not the center of the solar system, nor is it flat, killing 99.9% of bacteria isn't a good thing, among the other commonly held misconceptions. There are a lot of things that people believe that just aren't correct. Not that they will change their minds due to an obscurely published, difficult to read scientific journal article, but it could make a difference. I guess my main problem is when these types of obvious truth studies do nothing to help the world situation.

Greenpa said...

Molly- I love it! I think CIT wants you for a tenure track position!

Anonymous- sure, all true. The big problem for me is when researchers start doing hard research at "square one" - when in fact the solid observations- of trained scientists- is already working at "square 25". Let's build on what we know, please- not claim we know nothing.

EJ said...

I vacuum flies when here are too many to swat. It seems they haven't developed an evolutionary defense for this yet.

WILDBLUESbysus said...

Years ago while spending some time with "the crappers" on a Wisconsin dairy farm, fly swatting could develop into an afternoon of scientific data gathering. We found that clapping your hands together above a resting fly was the most effective method. The fly would fly up to meet your hands and squish. Of course that was before I became aware of the alert/relaxed fly posture. So many, many things to learn. Definitely think Molly is onto something.

Unknown said...

Oh my! We are on a way to world fly domination!

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly sure that frogs and toads made the discoveries long ago.

Anonymous said...

Gah, I hope this research wasn't federally funded!

I agree with your fly swatting tips. If you charge at the fly, it'll almost always escape. (I guess that theoretically, you could just repeatedly do this until the fly becomes exhausted. It would probably take like half an hour- assuming that there's nowhere for the fly to hide. Y'know what? THAT would've been a much more interesting experiment - how much stamina do flies have?)

I learned about the relaxed/alert thing by watching my cat. She'd slowly approach and get within striking range, and then she'd wait... wait... and chomp!

One other thing- if flies are so fantastic at avoiding things, why do they fly right into my mouth when I'm running? It doesn't seem like a great survival strategy. Maybe they do it to avenge all the flies I've swatted...

Wendy said...

Wow! I want his job.

Anonymous said...

I find using both arms works as a strategy - I distract the fly by making small movements with one hand and while it is watching that, I smack it with a newspaper. I get a pretty good strike rate;-)