Turbulent fluid landscapes impose temporal patterning upon chemical signals, and the dynamical neuronal responses to patterned input vary across the olfactory receptor repertoire in flies, moths, and locusts. Sensory transformations exhibit low pass filtering that ultimately results in perceptual fusion of temporally transient sensory signals. For example, humans perceive a sufficiently fast flickering light as continuous, but the frequency threshold at which this fusion occurs varies with wavelength. Although the summed frequency sensitivity of the fly antenna has been examined to a considerable extent, it is unknown how intermittent odor signals are integrated to influence plume tracking behavior independent of wind cues, and whether temporal fusion for behavioral tracking might vary according to the odor encountered.
Here we have adopted a virtual reality flight simulator to study the dynamics of plume tracking under different experimental conditions. Flies tethered in a magnetic field actively track continuous (non-intermittent) plumes of vinegar, banana, or ethyl butyrate with equal precision. However, pulsing these plumes at varying frequency reveals that the threshold rate, above which flies track the plume as if it were continuous, is unique for each odorant tested. Thus, the capability of a fly to navigate an intermittent plume depends on the particular odorant being tracked during flight. Finally, we measured antennal field potential responses to an intermittent plume, found that receptor dynamics track the temporal pattern of the odor stimulus and therefore do not limit the observed behavioral temporal fusion limits.
This study explores the flies' ability to track odor plumes that are temporally intermittent. We were surprised to find that the perceptual critical fusion limit, determined behaviorally, is strongly dependent on odor identity. Antennal field potential recordings indicate that peripheral processing of temporal cues faithfully follow rapid odor transients above the rates that can be resolved behaviorally. These results indicate that (1) higher order circuits create a perceptually continuous signal from an intermittent sensory one, and that (2) this transformation varies with odorant rather than being constrained by sensory-motor integration, thus (3) offering an entry point for examining the mechanisms of rapid olfactory decision making in an ecological context.