Jochen Zeil

the tiniest insect is ... more computationally smart and a more competent actor in complex natural environments than anything we can presently build

Ecological Neuroscience Group

Research Focus

We are interested in understanding the information processing challenges animals face under natural, evolution-relevant conditions. At the moment we concentrate in particular on insect navigation: what cues do animals use to remember places and to be able to navigate between them? How do they acquire navigational competence? What is the sensory ecology of navigation and how do navigational strategies depend on habitat structure? We have developed the concepts and tools to quantify navigational information under natural conditions, to map navigational information in different habitats and to track the movements of walking and flying animals with high precision. Trevor Murray builds 3D models of navigation environments and renders panoramic views from the perspective of navigating ants and wasps. Zoltán Kócsi’s antarium, a 20000 UV/Green/Blue LED virtual reality arena has recently been assembled and will allow us to dynamically project an ant’s environment as she walks through it on a trackball. Even the tiniest ants are able to navigate and Fiorella Ramierez-Esquivel investigates how miniaturization affects the sensory arrays of ants, their antennae and their eyes, which are crucial for communication and navigation.   

Teaching achievements

I have taught courses in England, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Kuwait and Australia and found intense compact courses with substantial hands-on practical components the most rewarding for both teachers and students. Examples include the Biocybernetics Practical at Tübingen University, where students conducted a semester-long series of two-week physiology experiments, or Paul Cooper’s third year physiology course, which subsequently turned into a Sensory Physiology and Animal Behaviour course. In its compact two-week form, it included two days of intense field work with eight afternoon sessions of data analysis. I also found the Summer School of Animal Navigation very exciting, which I organized for seven years with international and Australian colleagues.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I enjoyed teaching when my area of interest and expertise was embedded in a coherent biology curriculum. This was never the case here at the ANU.

What do you see as challenges for your field of research?

The most provocative one is the fact that even the tiniest insect is more flexible, more robust, more autonomous, more energy efficient, more computationally smart and a more competent actor in complex natural environments than anything we can presently build. So what makes insects such competent and autonomous agents in the world, in terms of sensing, information processing and decision making? Within biological science more specifically, the challenges are two-fold. Firstly, to convince neuroscientists that it is crucial to understand the design and function of brains in their natural habitat, that is in freely moving bodies and in the natural environments in which they have evolved. Secondly, to convince behavioural ecologists that all selective pressures have to work their way through developmental, genetic, epigenetic and neural networks and that it is therefore crucial to understand how these processes work and what the constraints are that are operating on these levels of biological organization.

What do you like most about research?

The friendships in a global community of kindred spirits, the huge aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment of watching an animal doing its stuff and the rare moments when I feel that I have understood something.

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