We discovered a bimodal behavior in the genetically tractable organism Drosophila melanogaster that allowed us to directly probe the neural mechanisms of an action selection process. When confronted by a predator-mimicking looming stimulus, a fly responds with either a long-duration escape behavior sequence that initiates stable flight or a distinct, short-duration sequence that sacrifices flight stability for speed. Intracellular recording of the descending giant fiber (GF) interneuron during head-fixed escape revealed that GF spike timing relative to parallel circuits for escape actions determined which of the two behavioral responses was elicited. The process was well described by a simple model in which the GF circuit has a higher activation threshold than the parallel circuits, but can override ongoing behavior to force a short takeoff. Our findings suggest a neural mechanism for action selection in which relative activation timing of parallel circuits creates the appropriate motor output.
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