Dr. Shannon Olsson
A mosquito buzzes in your ear at night. A fly lands on your plate. A bee hovers around your flower box. For most of us, our first reaction is to swat them away. But have you ever stopped to think how amazing it is that these tiny animals know how to identify these objects?
One of the most important tasks for any living organism is to identify objects in the world around them. All organisms must, for example, discriminate what to eat from what might eat them. And identifying complex objects in an even more complex world is a difficult task.
As humans, we learn what most objects are either through experience or social interaction. Yet many organisms do not have parents to teach them about the world. Most insects, for example, are solitary, which means that once they emerge from eggs or pupal cases, they must be able to identify objects, such as food or enemies, from birth. And they do this with a brain containing nearly one million times fewer neurons than our own. How is this possible?
Such questions are precisely what the NICE group strives to understand. The NICE group studies how animals, and especially insects, identify objects in their environment. They take field trips, record neurons, generate models, and even build virtual worlds, all with the goal of understanding how different insects have evolved to identify relevant cues and make decisions. They are interested not only in the what and how insect object identification, but also how insects have evolved to identify objects in a range of environments, like the hoverfly, or how they can evolve to detect new objects, such as invasive species. To address these questions, NICE group members perform research across species, mountains, and even continents. Understanding how small networks like insect brains perform object identification can uncover basic principles of complex sensory processing to understand the cause and treatment of sensorimotor disorders, or to build artificial systems that employ robot control and smart sensors. Also, investigating insect “objects” can provide opportunities to generate better pest and pollination management strategies.