Now, researchers, led by Steven Reppert of University of Massachusetts Medical School, Ivo Sauman of the Czech Academy of Sciences and Adriana Briscoe of the University of California at Irvine, have explored the infinitesimal butterfly brain to uncover new insights into that machinery. Their findings show that the same ultraviolet light that has become an anathema to cancer-wary humans is critical for butterfly navigation. Also, the researchers were surprised to discover a key wiring connection between the light-detecting navigation sensors in the butterfly's eye and the creature's circadian clock--a critical link if the butterflies are to compensate for the time of day in using their "sun compass."
The researchers' techniques include molecular analysis of butterfly brain proteins, as well as flight tests in which the scientists manipulated the light reaching their insect subjects and measured the navigational response.
In their studies, the researchers discovered that ultraviolet photoreceptors dominated in the region of the butterfly visual system known to specialize in polarized light detection. To confirm that the butterflies, indeed, required ultraviolet polarized light to navigate, the researchers tested the insects in a "flight simulator," in which they could control the light polarization and thus influence the butterflies' direction of flight. The researchers found that when they placed a UV-interference filter over the polarized light source, the butterflies lost their orientation response.
The researchers also pinpointed the location of the circadian clock in the butterfly brain. Such circadian clocks govern the approximately 24 hour activity a