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Praying mantises wear tiny 3D glasses for science

Researchers at the University of Newcastle are exploring the computational abilities of praying mantis eyes by having them wear tiny 3D glasses.


(Credit: The University of Newcastle)

Researchers at the University of Newcastle in the UK are exploring the computational abilities of praying mantis eyes by having the insects wear teeny tiny 3D glasses.

These little praying mantises may be cooler than Zaphod Beeblebrox, but they're not wearing these glasses to be stylin'. Or not just to be stylin', anyway. They're forming the basis of a research project by the University of Newcastle to understand 3D vision.

Praying mantises, you see, are the only invertebrate known to have 3D vision. By studying 3D vision in an invertebrate and comparing it to what they know about 3D vision, the team, led by Dr Jenny Read from the university's Institute of Neuroscience, hopes to gain a deeper understanding of how 3D vision evolved.

"Despite their minute brains, mantises are sophisticated visual hunters which can capture prey with terrifying efficiency," Dr Read said. "We can learn a lot by studying how they perceive the world."

(Credit: The University of Newcastle)

To help understand how the insects evolved 3D vision, the researchers are attaching tiny 3D glasses to their faces with beeswax. The mantises are then placed in front of computer-generated images displayed on monitors. By doing this, the researchers trick the insects into misjudging depth — the same way human brains are tricked when watching a 3D movie — revealing similarities or differences between the way mantises and humans process 3D information.

After each session, the beeswax and glasses are removed and the mantises returned to their kept habitat.

If mantises are able to discern an object's position in 3D space due to the differences between the position of that object's image in each of its eyes — even when that object is camouflaged when seen by each eye individually — that would reveal that mantises evolved similar 3D processing to vertebrates.

The mantises' responses will be tracked as behavioural observations and electrophysical recordings. These readings, the researchers hope, will be able to help model neural algorithms to be used in new 3D technologies, such as 3D recognition and depth perception in computer vision and robotics.

"This is a really exciting project to be working on," said Dr Vivek Nityananda, one of the researchers. "So much is still waiting to be discovered in this system. If we find that the way mantises process 3D vision is very different to the way humans do it, then that could open up all kinds of possibilities to create much simpler algorithms for programming 3D vision into robots."