Butterflies Learn Faster When Given A Nectar Reward

Researchers in Japan have found that butterflies learn faster in response to a reward – such as a flower that has nectar in it.

AsianScientist (Aug. 13, 2012) – Researchers in Japan have found that not only do butterflies (Byasa alcinous) learn faster in response to a nectar reward, but also that females learn faster than males.

The study, published online in the journal Naturwissenschaften – The Science of Nature by Dr. Ikuo Kandori and Takafumi Yamaki from Kinki University, is the first to investigate and compare the speed at which insects learn from both rewarding and non-rewarding experiences.

Animals are able to adjust their behavior to environmental change via the process of learning. In insects, there are three main types of learning: reward learning where insects develop a positive association between visual/olfactory cues and resources such as nectar; aversive learning where insects associate visual/olfactory cues with negative stimuli; and non-reward learning where they associate the cues with the absence of rewards.

In a series of four experiments, Kandori and Yamaki examined both the reward (nectar present) and non-reward (no nectar) learning abilities of the butterfly while foraging among artificial flowers of different colors. They also compared the reward and non-reward learning speeds in response to these cues.

It was found that the foraging butterfly learned to associate flower color with both the presence as well as absence of nectar, thus demonstrating the usage of both reward and non-reward learning.

Also, the butterfly learned quicker via reward learning than it did via non-reward learning; and females learned faster than males.

Byasa alcinous can find rewarding flower species more efficiently via both reward and non-reward learning. Insects may initially visit a certain flower by innate preference,” the authors write.

“If this flower is rewarding, they quickly increase their focus on that flower species through reward learning. If the flower species is unrewarding and common, frequent visits to that flower species enhances non-reward learning to avoid that flower species.”

The article can be found at: Kandori I et al. (2012) Reward and non-reward learning of flower colours in the butterfly Byasa alcinous (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae).


Source: Springer; Photo: Zorac&Visar/Flickr.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Sarah Chin is an animal management officer at the Singapore Zoo. She received a BA degree in natural sciences (zoology) from Cambridge University, UK. Besides caring for animals big and small, Sarah also enjoys wakeboarding and writing about nature and conservation.

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