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Visual place learning in Drosophila melanogaster


The ability of insects to learn and navigate to specific locations in the environment has fascinated naturalists for decades. The impressive navigational abilities of ants, bees, wasps and other insects demonstrate that insects are capable of visual place learning1,2,3,4, but little is known about the underlying neural circuits that mediate these behaviours. Drosophila melanogaster (common fruit fly) is a powerful model organism for dissecting the neural circuitry underlying complex behaviours, from sensory perception to learning and memory. Drosophila can identify and remember visual features such as size, colour and contour orientation5,6. However, the extent to which they use vision to recall specific locations remains unclear. Here we describe a visual place learning platform and demonstrate that Drosophila are capable of forming and retaining visual place memories to guide selective navigation. By targeted genetic silencing of small subsets of cells in the Drosophila brain, we show that neurons in the ellipsoid body, but not in the mushroom bodies, are necessary for visual place learning. Together, these studies reveal distinct neuroanatomical substrates for spatial versus non-spatial learning, and establish Drosophila as a powerful model for the study of spatial memories.

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Figure 1: Drosophila trained in a thermal–visual arena show place learning.
Figure 2: Flies use visual cues to improve in place learning tasks.
Figure 3: Trained flies show a persistent search bias in the absence of the cool tile and retain this memory for several hours.
Figure 4: Subsets of ellipsoid body ring neurons are required for place learning.


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We particularly thank M. Gallio for help with thermosensation and the development of temperature behavioural tests. We also thank G. Rubin for providing GAL4 lines before publication, A. Jenett for their anatomical annotation and M. Dickinson for discussions and advice. Brain images were provided by the Janelia Fly Light Project. T. Laverty and the Janelia Fly Core assisted with Drosophila maintenance. Additional support was provided by J. Osborne, C. Werner, D. Olbris and M. Bolstad. We also thank V. Jayaraman, members of the Reiser and Zuker labs, Janelia Farm colleagues and the Janelia Fly Olympiad Project. This project was supported through the HHMI Janelia Farm Research Campus visitor programmed (T.A.O. and C.S.Z., hosted by M.B.R.). C.S.Z. is a HHMI investigator and a Senior Fellow at Janelia Farm.

Author information




All authors designed the study and wrote the manuscript. T.A.O. carried out the experiments and data analysis.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Charles S. Zuker or Michael B. Reiser.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Figures 1-8 with legends and Supplementary Movie legends. (PDF 5727 kb)

Supplementary Movie 1

The movie shows a typical trial of place learning in the thermal visual arena (see Supplementary Information file for full legend). (MOV 10627 kb)

Supplementary Movie 2

The movie shows a typical probe trial following training with a coupled visual panorama (see Supplementary Information file for full legend). (MOV 3707 kb)

Supplementary Movie 3

This movie shows a typical probe trail following training with an uncoupled visual panorama (see Supplementary Information file for full legend). (MOV 3414 kb)

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Ofstad, T., Zuker, C. & Reiser, M. Visual place learning in Drosophila melanogaster. Nature 474, 204–207 (2011).

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