New theory predicts movement of different animals using sensing to search

By Xu Jing

CHICAGO, Sept. 22 (Xinhua) -- A Northwestern University (NU) research team has developed a new theory that can predict the movement of an animal's sensory organs while searching for something vital to its life.

The study focuses on South American gymnotid electric fish, using data from experiments performed in lab, but also analyzes previously published datasets on the blind eastern American mole, the American cockroach and the hummingbird hawkmoth. The three senses were electrosense, vision and smell.

The researchers applied the theory to four different species which involved three different senses, and found the theory predicted the observed sensing behavior of each animal.

The theory, called energy-constrained proportional betting, provides a unified solution to the problem of not spending too much time and energy moving around to sample information, while getting enough information to guide movement during tracking and related exploratory behaviors, as the algorithm following the theory generates simulated sensory organ movements that show good agreement to actual sensory organ movements from fish, mammals and insects.

"When you look at a cat's ears, you'll often see them swiveling to sample different locations of space," said Malcolm MacIver, a professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering in NU's McCormick School of Engineering who led the research. "This is an example of how animals are constantly positioning their sensory organs to help them absorb information from the environment. It turns out there is a lot going on below the surface in the movement of sense organs like ears and eyes and noses."

The research provides a bridge between the literature on animal movement and energetics and information theory-based approaches to sensing. The theory could be used to improve the performance of robots collecting information and possibly apply to the development of autonomous vehicles where response to uncertainty is a major challenge.

The study was published Tuesday by the journal eLife.

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