Gotcha! How to swat a fly, and know that it will die

The enduring mystery of why it is so difficult to swat a fly has been solved by scientists who believe they can now offer technical advice on how to hit a fly before it has chance to escape.

A series of experiments with high-speed digital cameras and a swarm of obliging laboratory flies has discovered that the insects use a sophisticated defence system to anticipate a swatter's movements in a fraction of a second.

The researchers found that a fly can calculate the angle of attack, make appropriate movements to its body and legs and adjust its wings to allow it to evade a direct hit.

Professor Michael Dickinson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said the findings offered a practical suggestion to anyone plagued by an annoying intruder in the kitchen. "It is best not to swat the fly's starting position, but rather to aim a bit forward of that to anticipate where the fly is going to jump when it first sees your swatter," he said.

Houseflies have all-round vision and can take off in any direction independently of how their body is aligned. This is one of the reasons why they are so good at evading an attack, Professor Dickinson said.

In the instant between seeing a moving swatter and flying away, the fly's brain is able to calculate the position of the impending threat and place its legs and body in an optimal position that allows it to jump in the opposite direction. All of the action is carried out within 100 milliseconds after the fly first spots the moving swatter, which shows just how rapidly the fly's brain can process the information, said Professor Dickinson.

He believes the fly must possess an internal map within its brain which converts the position of the threat into the appropriate body motion that leads to successful evasive action. "These movements are made very rapidly, within about 200 milliseconds, but within that time the animal determines where the threat is coming from and activates an appropriate set of movements to position its legs and wings," he said. "This illustrates how rapidly the fly's brain can process sensory information into an appropriate motor response."

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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