In their extraordinary annual migration from North America to Mexico, monarch butterflies are known to use the angle of polarized sunlight as a celestial guide to help them keep to a straight and true path southward. But details of their navigational machinery have remained a mystery.
Now, researchers, led by Steven Reppert of University of Massachusetts Medical School, Ivo Sauman of the Czech Academy of Sciences and Adriana Briscoe of the University of California at Irvine, have explored the infinitesimal butterfly brain to uncover new insights into that machinery. Their findings show that the same ultraviolet light that has become an anathema to cancer-wary humans is critical for butterfly navigation. Also, the researchers were surprised to discover a key wiring connection between the light-detecting navigation sensors in the butterflys eye and the creatures circadian clock--a critical link if the butterflies are to compensate for the time of day in using their "sun compass."
The researchers techniques include molecular analysis of butterfly brain proteins, as well as flight tests in which the scientists manipulated the light reaching their insect subjects and measured the navigational response.
Heidi Hardman | EurekAlert!
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