Aerial Interactions


Biomechanics and behavior during aerial interactions

To survive and reproduce, insects must evade predators, capture or forage for food, compete with other individuals, and acquire mates.  Many insects engage in some, if not all of these ecological interactions in the air.  Dragonflies are ideal subjects for examining aerial interactions, as adults perform all major fitness-related behaviors (predation, territorial encounters and mating) during flight.  However, they are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity, as they only eat live, flying prey, and will not hunt in suboptimal conditions.  Based on the behavior, ecology, and visual neurobiology of dragonflies, we designed an outdoor, artificial dragonfly habitat in which we have successfully housed several species of perching dragonflies for extended periods of time.  We can control the location and timing of predatory encounters, and perform repeated trials to quantify variability in capture success within and between species, as well as before and after experimental manipulations. 

With the support of an NSF grant (NSF IOS-0952471), we have used this system to perform over 5000 controlled predation trials and capture hundreds of high-speed videos of predatory encounters.  This work has led to several important insights concerning how effective dragonflies are as aerial predators, how prey with inferior flight capabilities are able to escape from dragonflies, and how irreversible wing damage that accumulates as dragonflies age affects their flight performance and predation success.  We are continuing to study how abiotic factors such as light and temperature affect flight behavior in fruit flies and other prey species, as our previous work suggests that environmentally mediated changes in flight may have important consequences for survival in natural environments.

Related Publications:

Combes, S.A., Salcedo, M.K., Pandit, M.M. and Iwasaki, J.M. (2013).  Capture

    success and efficiency of dragonflies pursuing different types of prey.  Int.

    Comp. Biol. 53(5): 787-798.

Combes, S.A., Rundle, D.E., Iwsaki, J.M. and Crall, J.D. (2012).  Linking

    biomechanics and ecology through predator-prey interactions: Flight

    performance of dragonflies and their prey.  J. Exp. Biol. 215: 903-913.

Combes, S.A., Crall, J.D. and Mukherjee, S. (2010).  Dynamics of animal

    movement in an ecological context: dragonfly wing damage reduces flight

    performance and predation success.  Biol. Lett. 6(3): 426-429.

Press Coverage:

New York Times video, “ScienceTake: How a Dragonfly Hunts,” Sept 2013

New York Times, “Nature’s Drone, Pretty and Deadly,” April 2013

Discovery Channel Canada, Daily Planet – Riskin’s Business, “Dragonfly

    episode, Sept 2012

NSF Science Nation video, “Dragonflies: The Flying Aces of the Insect World,”

    Oct 2011