Visual Threat Assessment and Reticulospinal Encoding of Calibrated Responses in Larval Zebrafish

Kiran Bhattacharyya, David L. McLean, Malcolm A. MacIver*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


All visual animals must decide whether approaching objects are a threat. Our current understanding of this process has identified a proximity-based mechanism where an evasive maneuver is triggered when a looming stimulus passes a subtended visual angle threshold. However, some escape strategies are more costly than others, and so it would be beneficial to additionally encode the level of threat conveyed by the predator's approach rate to select the most appropriate response. Here, using naturalistic rates of looming visual stimuli while simultaneously monitoring escape behavior and the recruitment of multiple reticulospinal neurons, we find that larval zebrafish do indeed perform a calibrated assessment of threat. While all fish generate evasive maneuvers at the same subtended visual angle, lower approach rates evoke slower, more kinematically variable escape responses with relatively long latencies as well as the unilateral recruitment of ventral spinal projecting nuclei (vSPNs) implicated in turning. In contrast, higher approach rates evoke faster, more kinematically stereotyped responses with relatively short latencies, as well as bilateral recruitment of vSPNs and unilateral recruitment of giant fiber neurons in fish and amphibians called Mauthner cells. In addition to the higher proportion of more costly, shorter-latency Mauthner-active responses to greater perceived threats, we observe a higher incidence of freezing behavior at higher approach rates. Our results provide a new framework to understand how behavioral flexibility is grounded in the appropriate balancing of trade-offs between fast and slow movements when deciding to respond to a visually perceived threat. Bhattacharyya et al. demonstrate that larval zebrafish use the approach rate of looming visual stimuli to assess the potential level of threat and act accordingly.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2751-2762.e6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number18
StatePublished - Sep 25 2017


  • Mauthner cell
  • behavioral variability
  • calcium imaging
  • escape behavior
  • escape strategy
  • giant fiber
  • hindbrain
  • lightfield microscopy
  • looming stimulus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Visual Threat Assessment and Reticulospinal Encoding of Calibrated Responses in Larval Zebrafish'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this