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Heliconiini butterflies can learn time-dependent reward associations.

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Toure, M Wyatt 
Young, Fletcher J 
McMillan, W Owen 
Montgomery, Stephen H 


For many pollinators, flowers provide predictable temporal schedules of resource availability, meaning an ability to learn time-dependent information could be widely beneficial. However, this ability has only been demonstrated in a handful of species. Observations of Heliconius butterflies suggest that they may have an ability to form time-dependent foraging preferences. Heliconius are unique among butterflies in actively collecting pollen, a dietary behaviour linked to spatio-temporally faithful 'trap-line' foraging. Time dependency of foraging preferences is hypothesized to allow Heliconius to exploit temporal predictability in alternative pollen resources. Here, we provide the first experimental evidence in support of this hypothesis, demonstrating that Heliconius hecale can learn opposing colour preferences in two time periods. This shift in preference is robust to the order of presentation, suggesting that preference is tied to the time of day and not due to ordinal or interval learning. However, this ability is not limited to Heliconius, as previously hypothesized, but also present in a related genus of non-pollen feeding butterflies. This demonstrates time learning likely pre-dates the origin of pollen feeding and may be prevalent across butterflies with less specialized foraging behaviours.



Lepidoptera, circadian memory, cognitive ecology, contextual learning, Animals, Butterflies, Color, Learning, Pollen, Reward

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Biol Lett

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The Royal Society