Bug Blog

The Fruit Flies That Learned To Count

When it comes to using insects as models for scientific experiments fruit flies are the first choice. Sometimes experiments are so rough on fruit flies that it cannot be denied that ethical standards are not always the first concern for scientists. Even a simple animal like a fly can suffer. One such experiment involved shining a light on the fruit flies inside of a box, and then shaking it. Two consecutive shines meant a shake, but one shine meant no shaking would occur.

The scientists were not doing this for sick kicks. They were trying to figure out whether or not the fruit flies could brace themselves for the vigorous shaking. It turned out that the flies were incapable of learning to expect the shaking, and so were the next generation of offspring. However, by the time the fourth generation rolled around it seemed that the fruit flies had been conditioned to expect the shaking. This suggests that the experience of being shaken had been bred into the fly offspring despite not experiencing the shaking for themselves. This interesting find has led scientists to rethink whether or not flies are capable of counting, as well as rethinking the way the human brain processes mathematical information.

How else might fruit flies help scientists understand humans?