Theories based on optimal sampling by the retina have been widely applied to visual ecology at the level of the optics of the eye, supported by visual behaviour. This leads to speculation about the additional processing that must lie in between-in the brain itself. But fewer studies have adopted a quantitative approach to evaluating the detectability of specific features in these neural pathways. We briefly review this approach with a focus on contrast sensitivity of two parallel pathways for motion processing in insects, one used for analysis of wide-field optic flow, the other for detection of small features. We further use a combination of optical modelling of image blur and physiological recording from both photoreceptors and higher-order small target motion detector neurons sensitive to small targets to show that such neurons operate right at the limits imposed by the optics of the eye and the noise level of single photoreceptors. Despite this, and the limitation of only being able to use information from adjacent receptors to detect target motion, they achieve a contrast sensitivity that rivals that of wide-field motion sensitive pathways in either insects or vertebrates-among the highest in absolute terms seen in any animal.
Keywords: contrast sensitivity; motion detection; target detection.