Why Do Researchers Place Insects On Treadmills?
When it comes to studying insects, most of you probably imagine a team of entomologists quietly observing bugs in the wild. Obviously studying wild insects in their natural environments is important to furthering insect related scientific knowledge. However, scientists must also carry out experiments in laboratory environments. This is not surprising, but some laboratory insect experiments would strike most people as quite odd. For example, it is becoming more and more common for researchers to place insects on devices that function like treadmills. Why researchers do this is not immediately obvious, but it is certainly not to help insects lose weight.
When researchers study insects, it is necessary to understand insect locomotion. All insects move in different ways. The variety of different ways in which insects move is not just of interest to entomologists. Mechanical and robotic engineers are also becoming more and more interested in how insects use their legs and wings in order to move. The past decade has seen numerous insect-inspired robotic designs. Without insect treadmills, engineers would not have been able to mechanically duplicate the details that make insect movement possible.
When an insect flies or crawls through its natural environment, it picks up on visual cues in order to determine how and where to move. In order to duplicate these situations in a lab, an insect is placed on a treadmill while a virtual reality screen serves as a standin for an insect’s natural environment. This virtual reality screen shows particular objects found in nature. These objects determine an insect’s directional decisions, while a treadmill simulates an insect’s movement. Researchers find these experiments useful when determining which parts of an insect’s brain contribute to its physical movements. These experiments also allow researchers to understand which environmental cues shape an insect’s decision making when traveling. Currently many different insects are being observed while running on treadmills. Ants, for example, are being placed on treadmills in order for engineers to better understand how to build driverless cars.
Do you think that insects can tell that they are not traveling within their natural environments during experiments that involve treadmills?