A distinct layer of the medulla integrates sky compass signals in the brain of an insect

PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e27855. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027855. Epub 2011 Nov 16.


Mass migration of desert locusts is a common phenomenon in North Africa and the Middle East but how these insects navigate is still poorly understood. Laboratory studies suggest that locusts are able to exploit the sky polarization pattern as a navigational cue. Like other insects locusts detect polarized light through a specialized dorsal rim area (DRA) of the eye. Polarization signals are transmitted through the optic lobe to the anterior optic tubercle (AOTu) and, finally, to the central complex in the brain. Whereas neurons of the AOTu integrate sky polarization and chromatic cues in a daytime dependent manner, the central complex holds a topographic representation of azimuthal directions suggesting a role as an internal sky compass. To understand further the integration of sky compass cues we studied polarization-sensitive (POL) neurons in the medulla that may be intercalated between DRA photoreceptors and AOTu neurons. Five types of POL-neuron were characterized and four of these in multiple recordings. All neurons had wide arborizations in medulla layer 4 and most, additionally, in the dorsal rim area of the medulla and in the accessory medulla, the presumed circadian clock. The neurons showed type-specific orientational tuning to zenithal polarized light and azimuth tuning to unpolarized green and UV light spots. In contrast to neurons of the AOTu, we found no evidence for color opponency and daytime dependent adjustment of sky compass signals. Therefore, medulla layer 4 is a distinct stage in the integration of sky compass signals that precedes the time-compensated integration of celestial cues in the AOTu.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Circadian Clocks
  • Electrophysiology
  • Grasshoppers / physiology*
  • Immunoenzyme Techniques
  • Medulla Oblongata / physiology*
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Photoreceptor Cells / metabolism
  • Visual Perception