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Keywords:

  • central complex;
  • anterior optic tubercle;
  • neuropil volumes;
  • visual system;
  • Danaus plexippus;
  • comparative neuroanatomy

Abstract

Each fall, eastern North American monarch butterflies in their northern range undergo a long-distance migration south to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. Migrants use a time-compensated sun compass to determine directionality during the migration. This compass system uses information extracted from sun-derived skylight cues that is compensated for time of day and ultimately transformed into the appropriate motor commands. The central complex (CX) is likely the site of the actual sun compass, because neurons in this brain region are tuned to specific skylight cues. To help illuminate the neural basis of sun compass navigation, we examined the neuronal composition of the CX and its associated brain regions. We generated a standardized version of the sun compass neuropils, providing reference volumes, as well as a common frame of reference for the registration of neuron morphologies. Volumetric comparisons between migratory and nonmigratory monarchs substantiated the proposed involvement of the CX and related brain areas in migratory behavior. Through registration of more than 55 neurons of 34 cell types, we were able to delineate the major input pathways to the CX, output pathways, and intrinsic neurons. Comparison of these neural elements with those of other species, especially the desert locust, revealed a surprising degree of conservation. From these interspecies data, we have established key components of a conserved core network of the CX, likely complemented by species-specific neurons, which together may comprise the neural substrates underlying the computations performed by the CX. J. Comp. Neurol. 521:267–298, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.