The Psychophysics of Polarization Vision
Our research focusses on how animals perceive and respond to polarized light, a property of light imperceptible to humans that nonetheless guides the behaviour of many animal species. In the past, work exploring the functions of polarization vision in animals, has ranged from differential conditioning in bumblebees, to startle responses in coral reef fishes, and orientation behaviour in nocturnal dung beetles.
Our current research uses the “waggle dances” of honeybees to investigate compass navigation. Honeybees were the first species shown to use a “polarization compass”, directing their foraging trips using patterns of polarization in the sky. To do this, they employ an internal map of the pattern of polarization across the sky.
We aim to better understand how the honeybee’s “sky map” trades off flexibility against generalisation, especially when faced with more challenging conditions, such as clouds, haze and extremes of solar elevation distort the sky’s polarization pattern. To achieve this, we combine cutting edge methods for automated detection and decoding waggle dances with state-of-the art statistical modelling and novel methods for reproducing polarized light in the lab.
Each year between April and September with we run behavioural experiments with honeybees, and welcome applications for student assistant positions during this time.
Meet The Team
Junior Group leader
James Foster did his B.Sc. in Zoology and Master of Research in Vision Science at the University of Bristol, UK. During his PhD in "Functions of Animal Polarization Sensitivity" at University of Bristol, he demonstrated the ability of bumblebees to learn, and actively choose, patterns of polarization associated with food rewards—revealing a new channel for plant–pollinator communication (Foster et al., Curr. Biol., 2014). During his postdoc at Lund University, he investigated the visual compass cues used by nocturnal dung beetles, establishing methods for quantifying these cues and identifying the features critical for orientation accuracy. In 2020, James became a research fellow at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg, Germany. In April 2022, he joined the neurobiology department at University of Konstanz and CASBC as an affiliate member. James´s research focusses on how animals perceive and respond to polarized light, a property of light imperceptible to humans that nonetheless guides the behaviour of many animal species. His current research uses the “waggle dances” of honeybees to investigate compass navigation.
Frida conducted her MSc project in the Insect Sensory Ecology and Cognition lab in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University. Her thesis focussed on the visual system of bumblebees by exploring the potential role of the ocelli in dim light navigation through a series of anatomical investigations into ocellar structures and a comparative investigation of ocelli size and brain size of bumblebee species that are known to navigate in different habitats in Sweden.
Frida likes bees and is particularly interested in navigation and foraging of pollinating insects. Her PhD project in the Foster Lab investigates the propagation of social information through groups of honeybees and locusts and how these species make navigational decisions using incomplete information from their peers.
George carried out his first Master Thesis at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU). The project revolved around the 3D reconstruction of retinal neurons in the European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus). Focusing on the adaptations of polarization vision in teleost fish, he used SEM images to reconstruct the synaptic anatomy of the inner retina and study its architecture. For his second Master Thesis at Harvard University, he studied the pangenome of three Scrub-Jay species (genus Aphelocoma). More specifically, he focused on the complex evolution and structural variation in gene families related to perception, like opsins and olfactory receptor genes.
George likes all animals and is very interested in all aspects of perception and sensory systems. His PhD project in the Foster Lab deals with the modeling of honeybee polarization vision and navigation, i.e. how bees turn sky polarization patterns into an internal compass.
Alisea did her B.S.c. in Psychology at the University of Trieste, Italy. Her Bachelor thesis, concerning response times as a measure of confidence in rats and humans, was carried out in the lab of Mathew Diamond at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA/ISAS), were she kept working as an intern after her graduation. There she was involved in the collection and analysis of psychophysical data from rats and humans as well as in the acquisition and curation of electrophysiological recordings in behaving rats.
Her research in the Foster Lab concerns studying the psychophysics of polarization perception in bumblebees.