The generation of acoustic communication signals is widespread across the animal kingdom, and males of many species, including Drosophilidae, produce patterned courtship songs to increase their chance of success with a female. For some animals, song structure can vary considerably from one rendition to the next; neural noise within pattern generating circuits is widely assumed to be the primary source of such variability, and statistical models that incorporate neural noise are successful at reproducing the full variation present in natural songs. In direct contrast, here we demonstrate that much of the pattern variability in Drosophila courtship song can be explained by taking into account the dynamic sensory experience of the male. In particular, using a quantitative behavioural assay combined with computational modelling, we find that males use fast modulations in visual and self-motion signals to pattern their songs, a relationship that we show is evolutionarily conserved. Using neural circuit manipulations, we also identify the pathways involved in song patterning choices and show that females are sensitive to song features. Our data not only demonstrate that Drosophila song production is not a fixed action pattern, but establish Drosophila as a valuable new model for studies of rapid decision-making under both social and naturalistic conditions.
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