Among insects, the praying mantis is believed to be the only one that sees in three dimensions, with depth, as humans do. And that gave scientists at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom an idea.
If they could fit the insects with miniature 3-D glasses, mini versions of what you might wear to watch a 3-D movie, they could do research on how 3-D vision works. So they created mini-glasses and used beeswax to attach them to the insects.
Dr. Vivek Nityananda, one of the project's researchers, says the praying mantis's eyes bear a resemblance to human eyes. “They’re very similar to us,” he says. The glasses manipulate the perceptions of a mantis, “just like a movie manipulates us into believing that we are seeing 3-D, when it’s not actually 3-D.”
Nityananda and his team put the glasses on a praying mantis and show it a movie. They then measure the reaction of the mantis to the pictures.
The goal is to fool "a mantis into believing it’s seeing something that’s a likely prey object,” he says. “Just a black dot on a white screen, or a black square, that moves around in a particular way.”
The team is trying to judge a mantis's vision and depth perception. If the praying mantis proves to be misjudging images, it could indicate it processes 3-D images differently than humans do. And that might give a clue to scientists on alternative ways to design future 3-D technology for humans and robots.
“On the other hand,” Nityananda explains, "if they do have something that’s very similar to us, that tells us that, basically, nervous systems are coming up with the same solutions across different species.”
So how are mantises as research subjects? Nityananda says they are doing pretty well and have an adult life of up to one year. But he admits some are more cooperative than others. “We recognize some of them and we know which ones are motivated enough to be useful and which ones aren’t,” he says.