Escape behaviors deliver organisms away from imminent catastrophe. Here, we characterize behavioral responses of freely swimming larval zebrafish to looming visual stimuli simulating predators. We report that the visual system alone can recruit lateralized, rapid escape motor programs, similar to those elicited by mechanosensory modalities. Two-photon calcium imaging of retino-recipient midbrain regions isolated the optic tectum as an important center processing looming stimuli, with ensemble activity encoding the critical image size determining escape latency. Furthermore, we describe activity in retinal ganglion cell terminals and superficial inhibitory interneurons in the tectum during looming and propose a model for how temporal dynamics in tectal periventricular neurons might arise from computations between these two fundamental constituents. Finally, laser ablations of hindbrain circuitry confirmed that visual and mechanosensory modalities share the same premotor output network. We establish a circuit for the processing of aversive stimuli in the context of an innate visual behavior.
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