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Nerve cells linked to locust swarming

By Tim Sandle     Dec 20, 2014 in Environment
Nottingham - Researchers have linked nerve cells found in desert locusts that trigger ‘gang-like' gregarious behavior when they come together in a crowd. The research informs about brain chemicals and the control of behavior.
Locusts are the swarming phase of certain species of short-horned grasshoppers. The adults are powerful fliers; they can travel great distances, consuming literally all green material wherever the swarm settles. Although locusts are characterized in books and movies as moving in unison in swarms, locusts are actually solitary insects that actively avoid the company of other locusts. However, when they are forced into contact with other locusts a strange change takes place. Here locusts enter a 'bolder' state where they are actively attracted to the company of other locusts. If the numbers build up sufficiently this creates the much-feared locust swarms.
The research has shown that locusts have a small number of nerve cells that can synthesise serotonin and a select number of these respond specifically when a locust is first forced to be with other locusts. Within an hour, the cells have produced considerably more serotonin. Serotonin is capable of reconfiguring the behaviour of a locust.
Specifically the new research shows that previously unknown nerve cells in locusts produce the neurochemical serotonin that initiates changes in their behaviour and lifestyle. Serotonin affects the brains of all animals, acting on parts that regulate moods and social interactions.
For the study, researchers used a fluorescent stain. The stain allows the serotonin-producing nerve cells to be viewed under a microscope. From this, the level of serotonin in individual nerve cells can be measured.
The research was a collaboration between the University of Leicester's Department of Biology and the University of Sydney, Australia. The findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The research paper is titled “Differential activation of serotonergic neurons during short- and long-term gregarization of desert locusts.”
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