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J Neurophysiol. 2012 Sep;108(6):1695-710. doi: 10.1152/jn.01023.2011. Epub 2012 Jul 5.

Receptive field properties and intensity-response functions of polarization-sensitive neurons of the optic tubercle in gregarious and solitarious locusts.

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


Many migrating insects rely on the plane of sky polarization as a cue to detect spatial directions. Desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria), like other insects, perceive polarized light through specialized photoreceptors in a dorsal eye region. Desert locusts occur in two phases: a gregarious swarming phase, which migrates during the day, and a solitarious nocturnal phase. Neurons in a small brain area, the anterior optic tubercle (AOTu), are critically involved in processing polarized light in the locust brain. While polarization-sensitive intertubercle cells [lobula-tubercle neuron 1 (LoTu1) and tubercle-tubercle neuron 1 (TuTu1)] interconnect the AOTu of both hemispheres, tubercle-lateral accessory lobe tract (TuLAL1) neurons transmit sky compass signals to a polarization compass in the central brain. To better understand the neural network underlying polarized light processing in the AOTu and to investigate possible adaptations of the polarization vision system to a diurnal versus nocturnal lifestyle, we analyzed receptive field properties, intensity-response relationships, and daytime dependence of responses of AOTu neurons in gregarious and solitarious locusts. Surprisingly, no differences in the physiology of these neurons were found between the two locust phases. Instead, clear differences were observed between the different types of AOTu neurons. Whereas TuTu1 and TuLAL1 neurons encoded E-vector orientation independent of light intensity and would thus be operational in bright daylight, LoTu1 neurons were inhibited by high light intensity and provided strong polarization signaling only under dim light conditions. The presence of high- and low-intensity polarization channels might, therefore, allow solitarious and gregarious locusts to use the same polarization coding system despite their different activity cycles.

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