A novel lenticular arena to quantify locomotor competence in walking fruit flies

Drosophila melanogaster has become an important invertebrate model organism in biological and medical research, for mutational and genetic analysis, and in toxicological screening. Many screening assays have been developed that assess the flies’ mortality, reproduction, development, morphology, or behavioral competence. In this study, we describe a new assay for locomotor competence. It comprises a circular walking arena with a lenticular floor and a flat cover (the slope of the floor increases gradually from the center to the edge of the arena) plus automated fly tracking and statistical analysis. This simple modification of a flat arena presents a graduated physical challenge, with which we can assess fine gradations of motor ability, since a fly’s time average radial distance from the arena center is a direct indicator of its climbing ability. The time averaged distribution of flies as a function of slope, activity levels, and walking speed, yields a fine grained picture of locomotory ability and motivation levels. We demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of this assay (compared with a conventional tap-down test) by observing flies treated with a neurotoxin (BMAA) that acts as a glutamate agonist. The assay proves well suited to detect dose effects and progression effects with higher statistical power than the traditional tap-down, but it has a higher detection limit, making it less sensitive to treatment effects.