Equipped with its 302-cell nervous system, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans adapts its locomotion in different environments, exhibiting so-called swimming in liquids and crawling on dense gels. Recent experiments have demonstrated that the worm displays the full range of intermediate behaviors when placed in intermediate environments. The continuous nature of this transition strongly suggests that these behaviors all stem from modulation of a single underlying mechanism. We present a model of C. elegans forward locomotion that includes a neuromuscular control system that relies on a sensory feedback mechanism to generate undulations and is integrated with a physical model of the body and environment. We find that the model reproduces the entire swim-crawl transition, as well as locomotion in complex and heterogeneous environments. This is achieved with no modulatory mechanism, except via the proprioceptive response to the physical environment. Manipulations of the model are used to dissect the proposed pattern generation mechanism and its modulation. The model suggests a possible role for GABAergic D-class neurons in forward locomotion and makes a number of experimental predictions, in particular with respect to non-linearities in the model and to symmetry breaking between the neuromuscular systems on the ventral and dorsal sides of the body.
Keywords: invertebrate; locomotion; motor control; neuromechanical model; proprioception.