Deciphering the Love Song of Fruit Flies: Neuroscientists Unravel the Mystery

In the natural world, the allure of love songs is as strong as it is on the airwaves. From literature like Twelfth Night to movies like The Trumpet of the Swan and Happy Feet, the significance of serenading one’s beloved resonates across both human and animal realms.

APA 7: TWs Editor & ChatGPT. (2023, October 18). Deciphering the Love Song of Fruit Flies: Neuroscientists Unravel the Mystery. PerEXP Teamworks. [Article Link]

In a fascinating quest to understand the role of music in nature, Mala Murthy’s lab at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute has employed an array of cutting-edge tools, from neural imaging and optogenetics to artificial intelligence. Their innovative study reveals how a fruit fly’s brain shifts between solitary activities and amorous serenades. These findings have been featured in the latest edition of the journal Nature.

For me it is very rewarding that, in a team of exceptional scientists coming from different backgrounds, we joined forces and methodologies to figure out the key characteristics of a neural circuit that can explain a complex behavior — the patterning of courtship song.

Frederic Römschied
First author on this paper and a former postdoctoral fellow in Murthy’s lab
Group leader at the European Neuroscience Institute in Göttingen, Germany

It might be a surprise to discover that the fruit flies buzzing around your banana can sing, but it’s more than music, it’s communication.

It’s a conversation, with a back and forth. He sings, and she slows down, and she turns, and then he sings more. He’s constantly assessing her behavior to decide exactly how to sing. They’re exchanging information in this way. Unlike a songbird, belting out his song from his perch, he tunes everything into what she’s doing. It’s a dialogue.

Mala Murthy
Director, Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Karol and Marnie Marcin ’96 Professor

Through the examination of these miniature brains, scientists aim to glean insights that can be applied to the study of much larger and immensely intricate brains. Mala Murthy’s team is committed to unraveling the brain’s decision-making processes, specifically, how it discerns appropriate behaviors within different contexts.

One of the brain’s most impressive abilities is its capacity to generate patterns of behavior that are appropriate in particular contexts.

For example, the way you speak to a group of close friends in a coffee shop is likely very different from the way you speak to relatives at dinner. What is happening in the brain that allows us to generate this behavioral flexibility?

Max Aragon
A fifth-year graduate student in Murthy’s lab

A fruit fly wooing with melodies

Like crickets and grasshoppers, fruit flies employ their wings to create music, extending and vibrating one wing at a time. In the case of Drosophila melanogaster, only the male fruit flies engage in singing. Female fruit flies react by moving away or decelerating to enable the male’s approach. Male fruit flies cannot compel mating; they must court the female.

He chases her and sings to her, and she chooses whether or not to slow down for him.

They’ll go through this dance for 20 minutes or so, until she slows down enough to mate. He’ll sing hundreds of the ‘song bouts’ to her during their courtship.

Mala Murthy
Director, Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Karol and Marnie Marcin ’96 Professor

The shortest serenades endure mere milliseconds, while the more intricate performances can extend over several seconds.

Murthy played an amplified recording of the fruit fly’s serenade, featuring a sequence of rhythmic pulses intertwined with melodious notes.

That’s the real song. It’s not slowed down or sped up.

It’s just so quiet that even if the fruit fly landed in your ear, you wouldn’t hear it. You need to amplify it, because fruit flies have tiny little wings, but that’s it. That’s actually what he’s singing to her.

Mala Murthy
Director, Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Karol and Marnie Marcin ’96 Professor

The male fruit fly employs “Pulses” when he’s at a distance to grab the female’s attention. As he gets closer, he transitions to the more melodious “Sine” song. A third mode, known as “Complex,” alternates between pulse and sine songs.

As the male fruit fly pursues and the female either eludes or lures his advance, their serenade shifts between simple pulse-only songs and intricate pulse and sine compositions. Interestingly, the female also appears to favor this alternating pattern. In more technical terms, the research suggests that “Songbout complexity may be appealing to the female, as the majority of bouts immediately preceding copulation are complex.”


  1. WEBSITE Fuller-Wright, L. (2023, October 12). Fruit fly serenade: Princeton neuroscientists decode the tiny creatures’ mating song. Princeton University News. [Princeton University News]
  2. JOURNAL Roemschied, F. A., Pacheco, D. A., Aragon, M. J., Ireland, E. C., Li, X., Thieringer, K., Pang, R., & Murthy, M. (2023). Flexible circuit mechanisms for context-dependent song sequencing. Nature. [Nature]

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