Exploratory search during directed navigation in C. elegans and Drosophila larva


Many organisms—from bacteria to nematodes to insect larvae—navigate their environments by biasing random movements. In these organisms, navigation in isotropic environments can be characterized as an essentially diffusive and undirected process. In stimulus gradients, movement decisions are biased to drive directed navigation toward favorable environments. How does directed navigation in a gradient modulate random exploration either parallel or orthogonal to the gradient? Here, we introduce methods originally used for analyzing protein folding trajectories to study the trajectories of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and the Drosophila larva in isotropic environments, as well as in thermal and chemical gradients. We find that the statistics of random exploration in any direction are little affected by directed movement along a stimulus gradient. A key constraint on the behavioral strategies of these organisms appears to be the preservation of their capacity to continuously explore their environments in all directions even while moving toward favorable conditions.