What can we learn from insects on a treadmill with virtual reality?

When you think of a treadmill, what comes to your mind?

Perhaps the images of a person burning calories, or maybe the treadmill fail videos online. But almost certainly not a miniature treadmill for insects, and particularly not as a tool for understanding fundamental biology and its applications to technology.

Researchers have been studying insects walking on a treadmill.

But why!?

Traditional methods for investigating an insect’s biology include observing them in their natural habitat or in lab, and manipulating the animal or its surroundings. While this is sufficient for some research questions, it has its limitations for others. It is challenging to study certain behaviours like flight and navigation as it is difficult to manipulate insects in motion.  Scientists have been using the simple concept of a treadmill to address this. (1, 2). When insects fly or navigate, they typically use visual cues from their surroundings. So a screen with images/videos projected on can be used to study how the insects behave with such cues. Alternatively, a virtuality reality set-up added to the treadmill can help in manipulating the cues in real-time.

How do you make a treadmill for insects?

A miniature insect treadmill is a light-weight hollow Styrofoam ball suspended on an airflow. An ant, bee or a fly is tethered using a dental floss or a metal wire and place on the top of the ball. Motion of the ball as the insect walks on it is recorded by two optical sensors similar to the one you find in a desktop mouse. This set-up can be used as is outdoors or with stationary images projected on a screen, or with a virtual reality screen instead. For virtual reality, as the ant walks on the ball, the sensors record the movement of unique patterns on the ball to extract the fictive movement of the insect in two dimensional space. This information is then transmitted to a computer which creates corresponding movement in the images/video on virtual reality screen. For ants, this is almost as if they are walking and experiencing the change in the surroundings in real-time.

What can you learn from this about the insects?

Scientists have been able to learn about how visual cues influence flight and navigation in bees and ants by projecting them on a screen while tethered insects walk on a treadmill. Neural responses in different parts of their brain can also be recorded while the tethered insects are performing different behaviour. Such experiments can inform us about how they learn and remember different visual cues.

Do they show naturalistic behaviour on the treadmill?

At least in some ants like Cataglyphis fortis, the behaviours on the treadmill are similar to natural behaviour. However, the treadmill setup is still not free of shortcomings.

For example, restricting the movement of a flying insect like bees or flies tethered over the treadmill can affect their sensorymotor experience. Insect brains are evolved such that certain sensory feedback is required to elicit motor actions (behaviour). Flying on the treadmill might not feel the same for the insects. But recent technology has made it possible to use the virtual reality in real time for freely moving insects (and also mice and fish). High speed cameras can now record the 3-D position of a freely flying insect, and transmit that to a computer which updates the visuals on the screen accordingly. The whole set-up looks as if the insects are in a computer game.


(The experimenters control the fly’s position (red circles) and its flight direction by providing strong visual motion stimuli. Left: live camera footage, Right: plot of flight positions. Credit: https://strawlab.org/freemovr  )

On the other hand, this set up cannot be used to study depth perception or 3D vision (stereopsis) in insects like praying mantises as the projections on the screen are two dimensional. Luckily, researchers at the Newcastle University (link) have found another ingenious way—3D movie glasses! They cut out mantis-eye-sized glasses out of an ordinary human 3D glasses and attach them to the mantis eyes using beeswax. The visuals on the screen can now be similar to any 3D movie. This technique can potentially help in build simpler 3D vision systems for robots.

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Another challenge to the treadmill set-up include not being able to re-create different kinds of sensory information that they experience in nature. This may also be achieved in future.

What are the applications of this fundamental research?

The treadmill with virtual reality set-up is an example of how technology can advance science, and how fundamental biological research in turn can inspire technology.  Since insects have simpler nervous and sensory system than humans, they are easier to mimic. While the latest technology has helped uncover biological secrets of insects, that in turn can be an inspiration for bio-robots.

Take for example, the Moth robots. Moths use chemicals (pheromones) to communicate. So moths on a treadmill can navigate towards the smell. The motion of the treadmill as the tethered moth walks towards the smell can drive a small robot. Using the insect pilot in the cockpit of a robot, one can locate necessary odour signals in areas where humans cannot reach.


Ants navigating on the treadmill can also inspire visually navigating robots and driverless cars (link). This can have applications ranging from disaster management to extra-terrestrial navigation. Perhaps in future, ants-sized robots can visually navigate and search for the victims stuck under rubble after a devastating earthquake.

So a simple concept of a treadmill and the latest virtual reality can help biological research and inspire technology in different ways. What might be next, an insect gym?


Flame challenge: What is energy?

Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science holds a sci-comm competition every year. This year’s challenge was to explain what energy is, in a way any 11-year-old could understand. Here is my entry:

What is energy?

“You should eat more to get more energy” says my mum. But what is energy? Am I creating energy when I eat food? Let’s find out.

If you look around now, you might see your table, books, and pencils. Every object around you has energy proportional to its mass. But just like Pokémon, energy comes in various forms: heat, light, electrical, chemical, stored energy (called potential energy), energy due to motion (called kinetic energy) etc.

Energy is like currency (money) that changes form when it is spent. For example, you and your pencil on the desk have energy, and you can spend it to do any work. But when you use it up, it is converted from one form to another.

The pencil has chemical energy in it.  When you burn it, the energy is converted to heat and light energy till all of it is spent. But the heat and light energy were not created from nowhere, nor is the energy destroyed; it just converted from chemical to heat and light. All the energy in the universe is already inside everything around us in various forms. So we cannot create or destroy energy.

You need energy to do any work. Food that you eat gives your muscles the power to move so that you can walk. This energy has been converted from the Sun’s light energy which is converted to chemical energy by plants which we animals eat. So when I eat, I gain the energy from food, but I do not create energy.

I better go eat my lunch now before I spend the chemical energy in my muscles for walking so that I can catch all the Pokémon.

I did not win the competition, but it was definitely a challenge writing this.

Here is the winning entry: http://www.aldakavlilearningcenter.org/practice/flame-challenge/past-challenges/energy



Field Reports podcast

I am excited to announce that I started a new podcast series ‘Field Reports’ for the Journal of Animal Ecology blog. It is all about fieldwork and science.

For the first episode, I interviewed Nathan Sanders, a ‘formal professional wrestler’ and an ecologist at the University of Vermont. We talk about his first fieldwork experience, ants, plants, a skunk, why study biodiversity, WARM and SALT projects that he is involved in, advice for students, and many personal stories. More about Nate: http://www.natesanders.org

Here is the trailer:

You can listen to the podcast here:

For more info, please visit: https://journalofanimalecology.wordpress.com/2017/05/19/field-reports-with-nathan-sanders/ 



Insect inquiry: School outreach on making kids ask questions

Last week, I visited kids at the North Ainsle Primary school in Canberra. It was a fun outreach program with discussions about insects found in their school garden. The main goal was to make the kids ask questions about the insects and other small creatures that they find outside their classroom. There were some really interesting questions and some cool doodles (pictures ahead)!

The spirit of asking questions

Traditionally, students are taught to answer questions. They rarely get to learn to ask good questions. It definitely comes with practice, being inquisitive and critical. So I gave the kids a definition of insects and asked them to note questions about the insects they found outside. Surprisingly, they had some really good questions (although not exclusively on insects): what is the speed of a snail? What does it depend on? Do all ants eat other ants? Why are there spots on ladybugs (They even had some hypotheses for this)?Can butterflies fly after touching their wings? Do insects have nose? How do they taste? Why do insects have only 6 legs; why not 10? Do ladybugs change colour depending on their mood? How do insects grow hair on their skeleton? Did you know that baby slaters (wood lice) have a pouch to keep their young ones just like the kangaroos do?

Asking questions–particularly the right ones–is a great skill. It is a major part of doing science. General public can and do ask questions, but may not have the time and resources to answer them. Scientists, on the other hand, go a few steps deeper than a lay person. However, Why should you trust scientists? This Ted talk has something to think about.

Finally, here are some of the questions asked by the kids:



To make the session fun, I asked them to draw doodles if they wanted to. Here are some:



Credits: class 3/4 of North Ainsle Primary school. Teachers: Rachel Levinson and Amy Pepper

PS: (NPR made a great podcast on asking questions: http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/514152888/the-spirit-of-inquiry )

Is summer the best time for ant outreach? A Google-trends analysis

How popular is the word ‘ant’ in google searches from different countries? How does it change over time?

I used Google trends to check that. World wide, there seems to be a seasonal pattern in the search popularity.


Note: Here 100 means the most popular (given the range of time, country, topic (Biological sciences etc). 0 means less than 1% popular relative to the most popular score (of 100).

Although it could be biased by the population who knows how to use internet and have access to it, North American countries like Canada and US follow a seasonal search pattern with summer periods getting more searches.



The United Kingdom has a similar pattern too.


Perhaps it could be to get rid of ants in their houses. (This is definitely a correlation and a speculation, but not causation). But not all ants are bad. Maybe summer time is the best to teach people about ants, organise ant outreach programs and school visits etc. Although any time is good time to teach anything (almost), making more online content during the summer months can be helpful for people. And also for raising awareness about ants, diversity, conservation, pest control, and all the cool ant science!

I expected a similar pattern for most norther hemisphere countries, but it was not true for countries like Russia and Germany (although there seems like a weak pattern towards recent years in Germany). It could be due to various reasons like culture,and internet literacy/usage/availability.


Souther hemisphere countries like Australia have a peak in its summer time (Dec-Feb). But this was not true for South Africa.

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So more ants for the summer. More ant searches. More ant content for the summer. That is what we need.


How to be sane during insanely frustrating PhD days?

I think many PhD students agree that it gets really frustrating at times when experiments do not work, writing is impeded, procrastination creeps up all over, or you do not find suitable ant colonies to conduct your experiments even after spending many days (in my case). Something needs to be done. Here is what I think might help, and it helped me.

  1. Do something new for a day. Learn about something other than your PhD work. I went on an insect walk (looking for an interesting wasp) with a fellow PhD student at ANU (The Australian National University). I got motivated to learn more about other miniature creatures (apart from ants). I got an idea for a new structure for my blog, which you will read here in future.
  2. Talk to your peers about it and realise you are not alone in that.
  3.  Volunteer for a day if you can. It can have transformative effect on you when you talk with other people and about their work (non-science). I visited ANU community garden to learn about gardening.
  4. It is just a state of mind, of many possible states. So the feeling can be changed. It helps to change routines or maybe the way your desk is ordered. I changed the times of my work slightly, walked to uni instead of biking, started reading a book on insects while waiting, cleaned up my desk space…
  5. Lastly, write about it and share your thoughts with others.

Thoughts and insights on finishing one year of my PhD

Yes! It is exactly one year since I started my PhD. There is always a lot more to do than what I have already done. Here are some of my thoughts and insights from one year of being a PhD student.

I am not quite satisfied with everything, but that is how most of my colleagues seem to have felt in the beginning. Let me start with things that I did not achieve, but I wish I did.

Things I did not achieve

  1. Good time management; I should use the Pomodoro technique
  2. Saying No and knowing when to say; It is quite important, I realise.
  3. Having less number of distractions from the thesis; a few is enough.
  4. Learn to drive and swim.
  5. Finished at least one chapter and sent off for publication
  6. Write a feature article in a popular sci-comm outlet
  7. Ask one question a week

Things I learned

  1. Over-planning is bad. Sometimes unexpected results, observation and events are good.
  2. Plan data analysis before the experiment. It helps in designing a proper methodology.
  3. One should expect months of non-productivity, but working all the while towards the thesis
  4. There is a lot of politics in science. But try to be nice to everyone. In academia, most people have their own motives, most of the time.
  5. Scientists make mistakes, some are selfish, but all scientists are people (unless cats are conducting secret experiments on us)
  6. Published work is not always right. There is a lot of room for scepticism.
  7. Doing science is more important than sci-comm and outreach? If I want to be in Academia, I will be hired mainly for my science! I was given this advice after doing ‘too much’ sci-comm. I still need to strike a good balance.
  8. The feeling of guilt after a non-productive day or procrastination is quite common among PhD students. I need to learn to enjoy guilt-free weekends by setting short weekly and daily goals.
  9. Information diet! Internet sucks up all the time and pukes out lot of information that I don’t use/need. I should learn to go on less information diet.

Things achieved

  1. Collected data for 2 chapters of my thesis, and started writing a review.
  2. Won a few awards: Barbara Rice award for best field based presentation at departments conference, ASSAB conference best speed talk, OEH/ESA award (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage/ Ecological Society of Australia) for outstanding outreach for 2016, along with 5 more people from different universities in the country. All the six winners will be registering with the Scientists in school programof CSIRO to work on a collaborative ecology project in schools from different parts of the country. I will be working in a school in Canberra ACT. Through this school project, we aim to turn some bright young minds on to science!
  3. New skills
  • Matlab
  • GLMM
  • Slightly improved writing skills
  • Miscellaneous: Kayaking, sailing, stand-up paddle boarding…
  1. Attended Ant course 2016 and got to interact and network with many ant scientists and learned a few techniques like dissection, taxonomy, morphology etc.
  2. Started doing some science communication: Wrote a few articles to popular science outlets like The Conversation, The Royal Institute of Australia, Insectes Sociaux; gave an interview to ABC radio national, started a podcast called just-questions; made 30second biology videos, exploration videos of one new place a week; participated in outreach programs like ant walk and open day at MQ uni; joined HDR mentors to mentor new HDR students; started tutoring and learnt some human physiology!

New skills to acquire

  1. Neural electro-physiology, Neuropharmacology, brain dissection
  2. Computational modelling
  3. Scanning electron microscopy, 3D brain imaging


PS: This post has been more of a note-to-self, but some of it might be useful to others.