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Video: Autopilot for Fruit Flies

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Credit: Leif Ristroph, Attila Bergou, Itai Cohen, Z. Jane Wang, John Guckenheimer.

Aircraft aren't the only flying machines with autopilot. Fruit flies, too, seem to be able to automatically adjust to the changing wind currents around them without thinking about it, a team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers glued tiny steel pins to the backs of the flies, allowing them to gently nudge the insects off course with a magnetic pulse as they buzzed about. As can be seen in the video, which is slowed down to 1/300th of actual speed, the flies reorient themselves quickly in response to the magnetic pulse (about 7 seconds in)—too quickly, the researchers report, for them to have responded consciously to the change. And that may explain why they're so hard to swat.