Neuromuscular control and mechanics of flight initiation in insects


Dr Simon Walker

Dr Graham Askew

Project description

Background: Flight is energetically demanding, and this is particularly the case during take-off where aerodynamic forces equivalent to several times body weight can be required. It is also arguably the most important and challenging manoeuvre that all aerial insects must perform. A fast and accurate escape response can make the difference between survival or falling prey. Conversely, for ambush predators, the take-off forms the first stage of an attack that must be performed quickly, but precisely to lead to successful prey capture. 

The escape response has therefore evolved to be an extremely rapid in many animals (consider the difficulty trying to swat a fly). Consequently, it is no surprise that the largest axon in the insect body and other invertebrates, the giant fibre (GF) system, is dedicated to transmitting sensory information to motor neurons to allow extremely rapid locomotor escape responses. In several animal groups, particularly cephalopods and insects, the GF has further formed a model for understanding neurological degeneration and other disorders. 

Despite its prevalence in all flying insects, we still have a poor understanding of which muscles are actually used to engage (or disengage) the wing, how these are used to initiate flight and how it’s controlled by the nervous system. 

Aims: This project will use a multidisciplinary approach, combining recordings of muscle activity, high-speed imaging, x-ray imaging, and microscopy to determine how different insect species initiate and control their wings during take-off flight. The combination of techniques will create the most comprehensive understanding of this fundamental component of flight. The results will inform us about the evolution of flight and its adaptation among species with different behaviours and physical appearances, while also increasing our general understanding of neuromuscular systems. Further, it will provide inspiration for engineers in the design of bio-inspired flapping micro air vehicles that aim to emulate animal flight. 

This project offers and excellent opportunity for the PhD student to learn a range of state-of-the-art techniques covering both aspects of biology and engineering. It would be suitable for candidates with a range of interests including zoology, neurobiology, biomechanics, aerodynamics. 

Key benefits

This PhD will be funded directly by Royal Society (Fellows' Enhancement Award 2018) and University of Leeds It is a 4 year fully-funded PhD, covering: • Research Council Stipend • UK/EU Tuition Fees • Conference allowance • Research Costs

Entry requirements

Candidates should have, or be expecting, a 2.1 hons at Undergraduate level or above, in a relevant subject. If English is not your first language, you will need a recognised English Language qualification to be admitted onto any of the University's degree programmes: language requirements

How to apply

Please apply online

Please include supervisor name and project title.  A research proposal is not required.  Please upload a CV and transcripts.

How to apply (email)

How to apply (phone)

+44 (0)113 343 8186