Background: Despite having tiny brains and relatively low-resolution compound eyes, many fly species frequently engage in precisely controlled aerobatic pursuits of conspecifics. Recent investigations into high-order processing in the fly visual system have revealed a class of neurons, coined small-target-motion detectors (STMDs), capable of responding robustly to target motion against the motion of background clutter. Despite limited spatial acuity in the insect eye, these neurons display exquisite sensitivity to small targets.
Results: We recorded intracellularly from morphologically identified columnar neurons in the lobula complex of the hoverfly Eristalis tenax. We show that these columnar neurons with exquisitely small receptive fields, like their large-field counterparts recently described from both male and female flies, have an extreme selectivity for the motion of small targets. In doing so, we provide the first physiological characterization of small-field neurons in female flies. These retinotopically organized columnar neurons include both direction-selective and nondirection-selective classes covering a large area of visual space.
Conclusions: The retinotopic arrangement of lobula columnar neurons sensitive to the motion of small targets makes a strong case for these neurons as important precursors in the local processing of target motion. Furthermore, the continued response of STMDs with such small receptive fields to the motion of small targets in the presence of moving background clutter places further constraints on the potential mechanisms underlying their small-target tuning.