The impact of infrared radiation in flight control in the Australian “firebeetle” <i>Merimna atrata</i>

<div><p>Infrared (IR) receptors are rare in insects and have only been found in the small group of so-called pyrophilous insects, which approach forest fires. In previous work the morphology of the IR receptors and the physiology of the inherent sensory cells have been investigated. It was shown that receptors are located on the thorax and the abdomen respectively and show an astounding diversity with respect to structure and the presumed transduction mechanism. What is completely missing, however, is any behavioral evidence for the function of the IR receptors in pyrophilous insects. Here we describe the responses of the Australian “firebeetle”, <i>Merimna atrata</i> to IR radiation. Beetles in a restrained flight were laterally stimulated with IR radiation of an intensity 20% above a previously determined electrophysiological threshold of the IR organs (40 mW/cm<sup>2</sup>). After exposure, beetles always showed an avoidance response away from the IR source. Reversible ablation experiments showed that the abdominal IR receptors are essential for the observed behavior. Tests with weaker IR radiation (11.4 mW/cm<sup>2</sup>) also induced avoidance reactions in some beetles pointing to a lower threshold. In contrast, beetles were never attracted by the IR source. Our results suggest that the IR receptors in <i>Merimna atrata</i> serve as an early warning system preventing an accidental landing on a hot surface. We also tested if another fire specific stimulus, the view of a large smoke plume, influenced the flight. However, due to an unexpected insensitivity of the flying beetles to most visual stimuli results were ambiguous.</p></div>