The starting point for everything we do in the lab is behavior. The behavior that we study is odor-modulated locomotion – specifically how flying and walking insects track odor plumes to locate important resources like food and mates. The animals we study and compare are the tobacco hornworm moth, Manduca sexta, and the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana. The experiments in our lab are aimed at two goals: 1) understanding how plume tracking animals use information from many types of sensors (i.e., odor, visual & wind) to follow wind-borne plumes of odor, and 2) understanding how moths generate and control their flight maneuvers to adapt to different tasks and environments. Our most recent series of experiments aimed at understanding plume tracking are focused on how the structure of the behavior results from an interaction of the environment (wind & odor), size and structure of the antennae, and mode and speed of locomotion (walking and flight). The most recent set of flight control experiments are aimed at understanding the role of touch sensors on the wings and body in the generation and control of wing movements during maneuvering. In these flight experiments we use plume tracking behavior as a tool to activate and direct flight for easy, reliable data collection.
To view more information regarding Dr. Willis’ research, including videos of moths in flight, visit his lab website.