Mystery Photo

What in the world is it?

Mystery Photo

Don’t peek at the answer until you’ve given this a good try! Then, scroll down a bit and the truth will be revealed to you.

(Image Credit: Wheeler, Petersen, Buckner/Washington U.)

A dustball with an attitude? A moth having a bad hair day? Well, in fact, this month’s mystery photo is of a moth, and it is most definitely having a bad hair day. That’s because this male moth was one of several that University of Utah biologists wired to electrodes and then placed in small wind tunnels. Once inside the tunnel, the biologists let them smell the odor that female moths release when they want to attract a mate. The purpose of the study was to reveal clues about how odors are converted into nerve impulses in the brain.

The study was good for science, the researchers said, but frustrating for the male moths, who never did find any females (just scents). But what did their antennas and brains sense? Neil J. Vickers, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah says, that the results showed that the dynamics of the odor — namely, changes in the odor’s intensity over space and time — correlated closely with electrical firings of neurons or nerve cells in the moth’s brain. That result contradicts earlier research suggesting that the nerve cells fire in a way that is not related to changes in the concentration of odor. "In other words," Vickers says, "odor-responsive moth brain cells follow the pattern and fluctuations of odor puffs that waft by the antenna."