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Optimizing the use of a sensor resource for opponent polarization coding

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Heras, FJH 
Laughlin, SB 


Flies use specialized photoreceptors R7 and R8 in the dorsal rim area (DRA) to detect skylight polarization. R7 and R8 form a tiered waveguide (central rhabdomere pair, CRP) with R7 on top, filtering light delivered to R8. We examine how the division of a given resource, CRP length, between R7 and R8 affects their ability to code polarization angle. We model optical absorption to show how the length fractions allotted to R7 and R8 determine the rates at which they transduce photons, and correct these rates for transduction unit saturation. The rates give polarization signal and photon noise in R7, and in R8. Their signals are combined in an opponent unit, intrinsic noise added, and the unit’s output analysed to extract two measures of coding ability, number of discriminable polarization angles and mutual information. A very long R7 maximizes opponent signal amplitude, but codes inefficiently due to photon noise in the very short R8. Discriminability and mutual information are optimized by maximizing signal to noise ratio, SNR. At lower light levels approximately equal lengths of R7 and R8 are optimal because photon noise dominates. At higher light levels intrinsic noise comes to dominate and a shorter R8 is optimum. The optimum R8 length fractions falls to one third. This intensity dependent range of optimal length fractions corresponds to the range observed in different fly species and is not affected by transduction unit saturation. We conclude that a limited resource, rhabdom length, can be divided between two polarization sensors, R7 and R8, to optimize opponent coding. We also find that coding ability increases sub-linearly with total rhabdom length, according to the law of diminishing returns. Consequently, the specialized shorter central rhabdom in the DRA codes polarization twice as efficiently with respect to rhabdom length than the longer rhabdom used in the rest of the eye.



dorsal rim, photon noise, fly, jnd, photoreceptor length, vision, polarized light, efficient design, discriminable polarization angles, transduction units

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Simon Laughlin is supported by an honorarium from H. Britton Sanderford. Francisco Heras was supported by grants from Fundación Caja, Madrid; Trinity College, Cambridge; and the Departmentt of Zoology, University of Cambridge.