Smart Skins: Information Processing by Lateral Line Flow Sensors


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Abstract

The information processing capabilities of the lateral line system and its potential utility in surveying foreign environments and providing sensory guidance to autonomous vehicles in dark or highly turbulent conditions is reviewed. The lateral line is a spatially-distributed system of directionally-sensitive sensors that respond to low-frequency water motions created by nearby moving sources, the animal's own movements, the ambient motions of the surrounding water, and distortions in ambient or self-generated motions caused by the presence of stationary objects. While lateral line sensors on the skin surface appear to serve behaviors dependent on large-scale stimuli, such as upstream orientation to bulk water flow, other sensors enclosed in fluid-filled canals appear to subserve behaviors requiring information about fine spatial details, such as prey localization. Stimulation patterns along sensor arrays provide rich information about the location, distance and direction of moving sources. The lateral line system has also evolved several different mechanisms—static biomechanical filters at the periphery and dynamic neural filters in the central nervous system—for enhancing signal-to-noise ratios in different behavioral contexts, ranging from unexpected events of importance (e.g., an approaching predator or prey) to expected events of little relevance (e.g., the animal's own repeated and regular breathing movements).

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