Receptive fields of locust brain neurons are matched to polarization patterns of the sky

Curr Biol. 2014 Sep 22;24(18):2124-2129. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.07.045. Epub 2014 Sep 4.


Many animals, including insects, are able to use celestial cues as a reference for spatial orientation and long-distance navigation [1]. In addition to direct sunlight, the chromatic gradient of the sky and its polarization pattern are suited to serve as orientation cues [2-5]. Atmospheric scattering of sunlight causes a regular pattern of E vectors in the sky, which are arranged along concentric circles around the sun [5, 6]. Although certain insects rely predominantly on sky polarization for spatial orientation [7], it has been argued that detection of celestial E vector orientation may not suffice to differentiate between solar and antisolar directions [8, 9]. We show here that polarization-sensitive (POL) neurons in the brain of the desert locust Schistocerca gregaria can overcome this ambiguity. Extracellular recordings from POL units in the central complex and lateral accessory lobes revealed E vector tunings arranged in concentric circles within large receptive fields, matching the sky polarization pattern at certain solar positions. Modeling of neuronal responses under an idealized sky polarization pattern (Rayleigh sky) suggests that these "matched filter" properties allow locusts to unambiguously determine the solar azimuth by relying solely on the sky polarization pattern for compass navigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Grasshoppers / physiology*
  • In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence
  • Light*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Space Perception*