Dimensionality and dynamics in the behavior of C. elegans

Greg J. Stephens, Bethany Johnson-Kerner, William Bialek, William S. Ryu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

324 Scopus citations


A major challenge in analyzing animal behavior is to discover some underlying simplicity in complex motor actions. Here, we show that the space of shapes adopted by the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is low dimensional, with just four dimensions accounting for 95% of the shape variance. These dimensions provide a quantitative description of worm behavior, and we partially reconstruct "equations of motion" for the dynamics in this space. These dynamics have multiple attractors, and we find that the worm visits these in a rapid and almost completely deterministic response to weak thermal stimuli. Stimulus-dependent correlations among the different modes suggest that one can generate more reliable behaviors by synchronizing stimuli to the state of the worm in shape space. We confirm this prediction, effectively "steering" the worm in real time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1000028
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology
  • Ecology
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics
  • Modeling and Simulation


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