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startle response

Why Flies and Humans Freeze When Startled

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

When faced with something unexpected and potentially ominous, like a sudden, loud noise or a threat of danger, humans often freeze before we act. This is colloquially referred to as the “deer in the headlights” phenomenon. The movie of fruit flies that you see above may help explain the ancient origins of the “startle response” and other biomechanical aspects of motion.

In this video, which shows a footrace between two flies (Drosophila melanogaster), there are no winners or losers. Their dash across the screen provides a world-class view of the biomechanics of walking in these tiny, 3 millimeter-long insects that just won’t sit still.

The fly at the top zips along at about 25 millimeters per second, the normal walking speed for Drosophila. As a six-legged hexapod, the fly walks with a “tripod gait,” alternating between its stance phase—right fore (RF), left middle (LM), and right hind (RH) —and its swing phase sequence of left fore (LF), right middle (RM), and left hind (LH).

The slowpoke at the bottom of the video clocks in at a mere 15 millimeters per second. This fly’s more-tentative gait isn’t due to an injury or a natural lack of speed. What is causing the delay is the rapid release of the chemical messenger serotonin into its nervous system, which models a startle response.

You may have already heard about serotonin because of its role in regulating mood and appetite in humans. Now, a team led by Richard S. Mann and Clare Howard, Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York, has discovered that fruit flies naturally release serotonin to turn on neural circuits that downshift and steady the speed of their gait.

As detailed recently in Current Biology [1], serotonin is active under myriad conditions to tell flies to slow things down. For example, serotonin helps flies weather the stress of extreme temperatures, conserve energy during bouts of hunger, and even walk upside down on the ceiling.

But the research team, which was supported by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, found that serotonin’s most-powerful effect came during an actual startle response, prompted by a sudden, jolting vibration. Scientists suspect the release of serotonin activates motor neurons much like an emergency brake, stiffening and locking up the fly’s leg joints. When the researchers blocked the fly’s release of serotonin, it interrupted their normal startle response.

In years past, such a detailed, high-resolution “action video” of Drosophila, one of the most-popular model organisms in biology, would have been impossible to produce. Fruit flies are tiny and possess extremely high energy.

But a few years ago, the Mann lab developed the approach used in this video to bring the hurried gait of fruit flies into tight focus [2]. Their system combines an optical touch sensor and high-speed video imaging that records the footfalls of all six of a fly’s feet.

Then, using the lab’s unique software program called FlyWalker , the researchers can extract various biomechanical parameters of walking in time and space. These include step length, footprint alignment, and, as the letters in the video show, the natural sequence of a tripod gait.

Drosophila may be a very distant relative of humans. But these ubiquitous insects that sometimes buzz around our fruit bowls contain many fundamental clues into human biology, whether the area of research is genetics, nutrition, biomechanics, or even the underlying biology of the startle response.


[1] Serotonergic Modulation of Walking in Drosophila. Howard CE, Chen CL, Tabachnik T, Hormigo R, Ramdya P, Mann RS. Curr Biol. 2019 Nov 22.

[2] Quantification of gait parameters in freely walking wild type and sensory deprived Drosophila melanogaster. Mendes CS, Bartos I, Akay T, Márka S, Mann RS. Elife. 2013 Jan 8;2:e00231.


Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Mann Lab (Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York)

MouseWalker Colored Feet (YouTube)

NIH Support: National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences