Anatomical Reconstruction and Functional Imaging Reveal an Ordered Array of Skylight Polarization Detectors in Drosophila

J Neurosci. 2016 May 11;36(19):5397-404. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0310-16.2016.


Many insects exploit skylight polarization as a compass cue for orientation and navigation. In the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, photoreceptors R7 and R8 in the dorsal rim area (DRA) of the compound eye are specialized to detect the electric vector (e-vector) of linearly polarized light. These photoreceptors are arranged in stacked pairs with identical fields of view and spectral sensitivities, but mutually orthogonal microvillar orientations. As in larger flies, we found that the microvillar orientation of the distal photoreceptor R7 changes in a fan-like fashion along the DRA. This anatomical arrangement suggests that the DRA constitutes a detector for skylight polarization, in which different e-vectors maximally excite different positions in the array. To test our hypothesis, we measured responses to polarized light of varying e-vector angles in the terminals of R7/8 cells using genetically encoded calcium indicators. Our data confirm a progression of preferred e-vector angles from anterior to posterior in the DRA, and a strict orthogonality between the e-vector preferences of paired R7/8 cells. We observed decreased activity in photoreceptors in response to flashes of light polarized orthogonally to their preferred e-vector angle, suggesting reciprocal inhibition between photoreceptors in the same medullar column, which may serve to increase polarization contrast. Together, our results indicate that the polarization-vision system relies on a spatial map of preferred e-vector angles at the earliest stage of sensory processing.

Significance statement: The fly's visual system is an influential model system for studying neural computation, and much is known about its anatomy, physiology, and development. The circuits underlying motion processing have received the most attention, but researchers are increasingly investigating other functions, such as color perception and object recognition. In this work, we investigate the early neural processing of a somewhat exotic sense, called polarization vision. Because skylight is polarized in an orientation that is rigidly determined by the position of the sun, this cue provides compass information. Behavioral experiments have shown that many species use the polarization pattern in the sky to direct locomotion. Here we describe the input stage of the fly's polarization-vision system.

Keywords: insect; navigation; polarization opponency; polarized light; vision.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Compound Eye, Arthropod / cytology
  • Compound Eye, Arthropod / physiology*
  • Drosophila melanogaster / cytology
  • Drosophila melanogaster / physiology*
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate / physiology*
  • Spatial Navigation*
  • Vision, Ocular
  • Visual Perception