Colour learning in two behavioural contexts: How much can a butterfly keep in mind?

Marth R. Weiss, Daniel R. Papaj

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


Here we examine the ability of butterflies to learn colour cues in two different behavioural contexts, nectar foraging and oviposition, more or less simultaneously. We first trained female Battus philenor (Papilionidae) butterflies to associate a given colour with the presence of host plant leaf extract and assayed their colour preference; we then trained a subset of these butterflies to associate a second colour with the presence of sucrose solution and assayed colour preference once more. When offered an array of four unscented and unrewarding coloured models, 'single-trained' butterflies consistently alighted most frequently on their oviposition training colour. Green-trained butterflies landed on nontrained colours only about 4% of the time, while butterflies trained to red, yellow or blue made about 23% of their landings on nontrained colours; of those nontrained landings, most were on green. The majority of 'dual-trained' butterflies made the greatest number of visits to both training colours in the appropriate behavioural context; that is, they probed the models of their sucrose-associated colour and alighted on the models of their oviposition-associated colour. Landings or probes on nontrained colours in one context were consistently biased towards what was learned in the alternative context, suggesting an information-processing constraint in the butterflies. This paper provides a clear demonstration that butterflies can learn in two behavioural contexts within a short span of time. A capacity for such dual conditioning presumably permits female butterflies to forage effectively for egg-laying sites and nectar resources even when those activities are intermingled in time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)425-434
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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