Hawk moths are pretty impressive, as they can literally slow down their brain to activate their night vision, all while they are making complex movements with their wings.
Some of the greatest inventions out there have been developed by observing nature and studying the complex technology behind animal life. Nature is an endless pool of ideas, as it is capable of displaying a significant amount of structural and behavioral systems that can be scaled up or down and turned into technology that humans can use.
This is one of the reasons why a team of researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Washington decided to study Manduca sexta, the hawk moth, in order to better understand how it is able to it can execute its flight motion all while feeding, during the dark hours of the night.
They are crepuscular insects, which means that they fly at dusk and dawn. They feed on nectar from flowers, which is more complicated than it might seem initially.
This is because the flowers do not stand still, but move around as dictated by the wind. And so, the hawk moths have to follow the flower, all while maintaining themselves in the air and using their proboscis (long feeding tube at their anterior end) to obtain the nectar.
Again, this is a very intricate process, because the hawk moth is rather large. They can reach up to 80 mm in length and this means that they have to produce very rapid movement of their wings in order to remain in the air.
And this is precisely what the scientists wanted to observe. They provided a 3D-printed specialized flower that they could control and put in the hawk moth in light conditions that would simulate moonlight and dusk.
They moved the robotic flower about as much as an actual flower would move on a day with a delicate breeze up to days where there is serious wind out on the field.
According to their findings, the hawk moth is able to see the flowers in complete darkness by slowing down their brain, precisely the part of the brain that perceives visual information.
However, the team of scientists revealed that there is a threshold to which they will slow down their brain activity that they do not exceed, as this would cause them to lose track of motion of the flowers.
They know exactly how much to diminish their brain activity, in order to remain perfectly aware of the location and the movement of both the flowers around them and the rest of the environment
The scientists actually believe that the flowers that the hawk moths feed on and therefore pollinate have actually evolved alongside the insects, as their life cycle is so closely related.
They came to this conclusion by observing that the hawk moth could keep up to the flower’s movement up to a limit of 1.7 Hertz, after which it began to experience trouble keeping up with the flower’s motion.
Also, they measured the frequency of the movement of the specific flowers that the hawk moth feeds on in the wild and they pointed out that up to 94% of movement was under the limit of 1,7 Hetz.
The study was published in the journal Science and it constitutes the baseline for future research that will focus on the amazing abilities of this complex insect.
Image Source: nsf.gov