Cognitive features in butterflies

Rudy Benavides rbenavid at
Thu Jun 14 14:09:23 EDT 2001

Sean Mullen wrote:
>Actually, Cheryl Hienz just finished up her Ph.D. here at Cornell on
>learning in Spicebush Swallowtails.

An article appeared in Natural History, 7/00-8/00, titled ^Brainy 
Butterflies  Insects are willing to learn^ by Martha Weiss (assistant 
professor of biology at Georgetown, Univ.).  In the article she states...

"I became interested in the subject of butterfly learning as a result of my 
work on flowers that change color.In many flowering -plant species, 
belonging to more than eighty families, individual blossoms undergo dramatic 
color changes before they begin to wilt. For example, Lantana camara 
flowers....are bright yellow when they open, then turn orange the second day 
and red the third.  Similarly, the white flowers of horse chestnut 
trees...have bright yellow marks on the petals to show the insects where to 
probe; these nectar guides turn orange and then deep red.  And the white 
spot on the upper petal of some blue lupines ... turn a deep magenta.  Only 
during the first color stage do these kinds of flowers contain pollen and/or 
nectar and have receptive stigmas."....

"On a lantana bush in bloom, only about a quarter of the open flowers will 
be yellow.  Foraging butterflies, however, probe hundreds of yellow flowers 
in succession, rarely inserting their proboscises into red ones.  I wondered 
if this behavior reflected an innate response to yellow, a learned response, 
or a combination of the two."

In addition to discussing the results of her behavioral work with raised 
Gulf fritillaries and pipe-vine swallowtails, she mentions the work of 
others...(only citing two here)...

"...Larry Gilbert and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin 
have found that a number of species of the genus Heliconius visit the same 
flowering plants in the same sequence on a regular daily circuit within 
their home range, much the way a trapper checks a trapline."

"Research by Mark Rausher, of Duke University, and Don Papj, of the 
University of Arizona, has demonstrated that female pipe-vine swallowtails 
can learn to associate leaf shape with the oviposition stimulant present in 
the leaves of host plants (and even with the stimulant painted on leaves of 
nonhost plants).

Natural History should be available in many local public libraries.



Get your FREE download of MSN Explorer at


   For subscription and related information about LEPS-L visit: 

More information about the Leps-l mailing list