Stockholm university

Emily BairdAssociate Professor

About me

My research program is focussed on understanding the link between the visual world of animals and how the brain uses visual information to guide behaviour in different environments. To do this, I take a comparative approach that uses a combination of behavioural experiments and anatomical analyses using X-ray micro computed-tomography using bumblebees and dung beetles as primary model systems.

I currently lead two exciting inter-disciplinary collaborative projects:

Dlife: Miniature creatures performing performing extraordinary feats with limited resources (, a collaboration with Poromate Manoonpong's group at the University of Southern Denmark and Stanislav Gorb's group at the University of Kiel funded by the Human Frontiers Science Project

INVISMO (INsect Vision and Movement): A new frameworkfor predicting insect pollinator habitat requirements, a collaboration with Henrik Smith's group at the Centre for Environmental and Climate Research at Lund University and Niklas Wahlberg's group at the Department of Biology at Lund University funded by the Swedish Research Council

Latest articles showing the micro-CT based method we have recently developed for visualising the visual world of insects:

Imaging ancient fungus gnat eyes from amber: 

Taylor G, Hall S, Gren J, Baird E 2020 Exploring the visual world of fossilized and modern fungus gnat eyes (Diptera: Keroplatidae) with X-ray microtomography J Roy Soc Int  17 doi:10.1098/rrsif.2019.07502.    

Imaging bumblebee and honeybee eyes:

Taylor G, Tichit P, Schmidt M, Bodey A, Rau C, Baird E 2019 Bumblebee visual allometry results in locally improved resolution and globally improved sensitivity eLife 8:e40613

Wilby D, Aarts T, Tichit P, Bodey A, Rau C, Taylor G*, Baird E 2019 Using micro-CT techniques to explore the role of sex and hair in the functional morphology of bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) ocelli Vis Res 158:100-108

Latest opinion piece on how conservation biology can benefit from sensory ecology 

Dominoni DM, Halfwerk W, Baird E, Buxton R, Fernandez-Jurcic E, Fristrup K, McKenna M, Mennitt D, Perkin E, Seymoure BM, Stoner DC, Tennessen J, Toth CA, Tyrell LP, Wilson A, Francis CD, Carter NH, Barber J 2020 What conservation biology can benefit from sensory ecology Nat Ecol Evol doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1135-4

There are always opportunities for different types of projects in my lab, from Bachelor and Masters to PhD and postdoctoral levels. If you are interested, please contact me. 



A selection from Stockholm University publication database

  • The brain behind straight-line orientation in dung beetles

    2019. Basil el Jundi (et al.). Journal of Experimental Biology 222


    For many insects, celestial compass cues play an important role in keeping track of their directional headings. One well-investigated group of celestial orientating insects are the African ball-rolling dung beetles. After finding a dung pile, these insects detach a piece, form it into a ball and roll it away along a straight path while facing backwards. A brain region, termed the central complex, acts as an internal compass that constantly updates the ball-rolling dung beetle about its heading. In this review, we give insights into the compass network behind straight-line orientation in dung beetles and place it in the context of the orientation mechanisms and neural networks of other insects. We find that the neuronal network behind straight-line orientation in dung beetles has strong similarities to the ones described in path-integrating and migrating insects, with the central complex being the key control point for this behavior. We conclude that, despite substantial differences in behavior and navigational challenges, dung beetles encode compass information in a similar way to other insects.

    Read more about The brain behind straight-line orientation in dung beetles
  • Exploring the visual world of fossilized and modern fungus gnat eyes (Diptera: Keroplatidae) with X-ray microtomography

    2020. Gavin J. Taylor (et al.). Journal of the Royal Society Interface 17 (163)


    Animal eyes typically possess specialized regions for guiding different behavioural tasks within their specific visual habitat. These specializations, and evolutionary changes to them, can be crucial for understanding an animal's ecology. Here, we explore how the visual systems of some of the smallest flying insects, fungus gnats, have adapted to different types of forest habitat over time (approx. 30 Myr to today). Unravelling how behavioural, environmental and phylogenetic factors influence the evolution of visual specializations is difficult, however, because standard quantitative techniques often require fresh tissue and/or provide data in eye-centric coordinates that prevent reliable comparisons between species with different eye morphologies. Here, we quantify the visual world of three gnats from different time periods and habitats using X-ray microtomography to create high-resolution three-dimensional models of the compound eyes of specimens in different preservation states-fossilized in amber, dried or stored in ethanol. We present a method for analysing the geometric details of individual corneal facets and for estimating and comparing the sensitivity, spatial resolution and field of view of species across geographical space and evolutionary time. Our results indicate that, despite their miniature size, fungus gnats do have variations in visual properties across their eyes. We also find some indication that these visual specializations vary across species and may represent adaptations to their different forest habitats. Overall, the findings demonstrate how such investigations can be used to study the evolution of visual specializations-and sensory ecology in general-across a range of insect taxa from different geographical locations and across time.

    Read more about Exploring the visual world of fossilized and modern fungus gnat eyes (Diptera: Keroplatidae) with X-ray microtomography
  • Rules for the Leg Coordination of Dung Beetle Ball Rolling Behaviour

    2020. Binggwong Leung (et al.). Scientific Reports 10 (1)


    Dung beetles can perform a number of versatile behaviours, including walking and dung ball rolling. While different walking and running gaits of dung beetles have been described in previous literature, little is known about their ball rolling gaits. From behavioural experiments and video recordings of the beetle Scarabaeus (Kheper) lamarcki, we analysed and identified four underlying rules for leg coordination during ball rolling. The rules describe the alternation of the front legs and protraction waves of the middle and hind legs. We found that while rolling a ball backwards, the front legs are decoupled or loosely coupled from the other legs, resulting in a non-standard gait, in contrast to previously described tripod and gallop walking gaits in dung beetles. This provides insight into the principles of leg coordination in dung beetle ball rolling behaviour and its underlying rules. The proposed rules can be used as a basis for further investigation into ball rolling behaviours on more complex terrain (e.g., uneven terrain and slopes). Additionally, the rules can also be used to guide the development of control mechanisms for bio-inspired ball rolling robots.

    Read more about Rules for the Leg Coordination of Dung Beetle Ball Rolling Behaviour
  • Straight-line orientation in the woodland-living beetle Sisyphus fasciculatus

    2020. Lana Khaldy (et al.). Journal of Comparative Physiology A. Sensory, neural, and behavioral physiology 206 (3), 327-335


    To transport their balls of dung along a constant bearing, diurnal savannah-living dung beetles rely primarily on the sun for compass information. However, in more cluttered environments, such as woodlands, this solitary compass cue is frequently hidden from view by surrounding vegetation. In these types of habitats, insects can, instead, rely on surrounding landmarks, the canopy pattern, or wide-field celestial cues, such as polarised skylight, for directional information. Here, we investigate the compass orientation strategy behind straight-line orientation in the diurnal woodland-living beetle Sisyphus fasciculatus. We found that, when manipulating the direction of polarised skylight, Si. fasciculatus responded to this change with a similar change in bearing. However, when the apparent position of the sun was moved, the woodland-living beetle did not change its direction of travel. In contrast, the savannah-living beetle Scarabaeus lamarcki responded to the manipulation of the solar position with a corresponding change in bearing. These results suggest that the dominant compass cue used for straight-line orientation in dung beetles may be determined by the celestial cue that is most prominent in their preferred habitat.

    Read more about Straight-line orientation in the woodland-living beetle Sisyphus fasciculatus
  • Bumblebee visual allometry results in locally improved resolution and globally improved sensitivity

    2019. Gavin J. Taylor (et al.). eLIFE 8


    The quality of visual information that is available to an animal is limited by the size of its eyes. Differences in eye size can be observed even between closely related individuals, yet we understand little about how this affects vision. Insects are good models for exploring the effects of size on visual systems because many insect species exhibit size polymorphism. Previous work has been limited by difficulties in determining the 3D structure of eyes. We have developed a novel method based on x-ray microtomography to measure the 3D structure of insect eyes and to calculate predictions of their visual capabilities. We used our method to investigate visual allometry in the bumblebee Bombus terrestris and found that size affects specific aspects of vision, including binocular overlap, optical sensitivity, and dorsofrontal visual resolution. This reveals that differential scaling between eye areas provides flexibility that improves the visual capabilities of larger bumblebees.

    Read more about Bumblebee visual allometry results in locally improved resolution and globally improved sensitivity
  • Multimodal cue integration in the dung beetle compass

    2019. Marie Dacke (et al.). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 116 (28), 14248-14253


    South African ball-rolling dung beetles exhibit a unique orientation behavior to avoid competition for food: after forming a piece of dung into a ball, they efficiently escape with it from the dung pile along a straight-line path. To keep track of their heading, these animals use celestial cues, such as the sun, as an orientation reference. Here we show that wind can also be used as a guiding cue for the ball-rolling beetles. We demonstrate that this mechanosensory compass cue is only used when skylight cues are difficult to read, i.e., when the sun is close to the zenith. This raises the question of how the beetles combine multimodal orientation input to obtain a robust heading estimate. To study this, we performed behavioral experiments in a tightly controlled indoor arena. This revealed that the beetles register directional information provided by the sun and the wind and can use them in a weighted manner. Moreover, the directional information can be transferred between these 2 sensory modalities, suggesting that they are combined in the spatial memory network in the beetle's brain. This flexible use of compass cue preferences relative to the prevailing visual and mechanosensory scenery provides a simple, yet effective, mechanism for enabling precise compass orientation at any time of the day.

    Read more about Multimodal cue integration in the dung beetle compass
  • The role of optic flow pooling in insect flight control in cluttered environments

    2019. Julien Lecoeur (et al.). Scientific Reports 9


    Flight through cluttered environments, such as forests, poses great challenges for animals and machines alike because even small changes in flight path may lead to collisions with nearby obstacles. When flying along narrow corridors, insects use the magnitude of visual motion experienced in each eye to control their position, height, and speed but it is unclear how this strategy would work when the environment contains nearby obstacles against a distant background. To minimise the risk of collisions, we would expect animals to rely on the visual motion generated by only the nearby obstacles but is this the case? To answer this, we combine behavioural experiments with numerical simulations and provide the first evidence that bumblebees extract the maximum rate of image motion in the frontal visual field to steer away from obstacles. Our findings also suggest that bumblebees use different optic flow calculations to control lateral position, speed, and height.

    Read more about The role of optic flow pooling in insect flight control in cluttered environments
  • Using micro-CT techniques to explore the role of sex and hair in the functional morphology of bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) ocelli

    2019. David Wilby (et al.). Vision Research 158, 100-108


    Many insects have triplets of camera type eyes, called ocelli, whose function remains unclear for most species. Here, we investigate the ocelli of the bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, using reconstructed 3D data from X-ray microtomography scans combined with computational ray-tracing simulations. This method enables us, not only to predict the visual fields of the ocelli, but to explore for the first time the effect that hair has on them as well as the difference between worker female and male ocelli. We find that bumblebee ocellar fields of view are directed forward and dorsally, incorporating the horizon as well as the sky. There is substantial binocular overlap between the median and lateral ocelli, but no overlap between the two lateral ocelli. Hairs in both workers and males occlude the ocellar field of view, mostly laterally in the worker median ocellus and dorsally in the lateral ocelli. There is little to no sexual dimorphism in the ocellar visual field, suggesting that in B. terrestris they confer no advantage to mating strategies. We compare our results with published observations for the visual fields of compound eyes in the same species as well as with the ocellar vision of other bee and insect species.

    Read more about Using micro-CT techniques to explore the role of sex and hair in the functional morphology of bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) ocelli

Show all publications by Emily Baird at Stockholm University