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Naturwissenschaften. 2004 May;91(5):199-208. Epub 2004 Apr 20.

In search of the sky compass in the insect brain.

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Fachbereich Biologie/Tierphysiologie, Philipps-Universit├Ąt Marburg, 35032 Marburg, Germany.


Like many vertebrate species, insects rely on a sun compass for spatial orientation and long- range navigation. In addition to the sun, however, insects can also use the polarization pattern of the sky as a reference for estimating navigational directions. Recent analysis of polarization vision pathways in the brain of orthopteroid insects sheds some light onto brain areas that might act as internal navigation centers. Here I review the significance, peripheral mechanisms, and central processing stages for polarization vision in insects with special reference to the locust Schistocerca gregaria. As in other insect species, polarization vision in locusts relies on specialized photoreceptor cells in a small dorsal rim area of the compound eye. Stages in the brain involved in polarized light signaling include specific areas in the lamina, medulla and lobula of the optic lobe and, in the midbrain, the anterior optic tubercle, the lateral accessory lobe, and the central complex. Integration of polarized-light signals with information on solar position appears to start in the optic lobe. In the central complex, polarization-opponent interneurons form a network of interconnected neurons. The organization of the central complex, its connections to thoracic motor centers, and its involvement in the spatial control of locomotion strongly suggest that it serves as a spatial organizer within the insect brain, including the functions of compass orientation and path integration. Time compensation in compass orientation is possibly achieved through a neural pathway from the internal circadian clock in the accessory medulla to the protocerebral bridge of the central complex.

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