Shifts in foraging behavior by a Battus philenor population: field evidence for switching by individual butterflies

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A bivoltine east Texas population of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor) exhibits a seasonal shift in the shapes of non-host leaves upon which ovipositing females land. Field mark-recapture studies and analysis of the behavior of wild females of different ages were used to distinguish between two alternative mechanisms for the shift in the populations's predominant leaf-shape search mode: seasonal differences in the outcome of learning for successively emerging naive foragers which exhibit one preference for most of their lives vs. synchronous switching by experienced foragers from one learned preference to another. Results supported each hypothesis: (1) Since wild butterflies are short-lived, the seasonal shift in searching behavior must reflect at least partly the successive emergence of naive females that learn to prefer host species with different leaf shapes. The leaf-shape preferences of older females were, in fact, stronger and less variable than those of younger individuals. About 80% of 51 marked individuals maintained stable leaf-shape search modes over recapture events, exhibiting slightly stronger preferences in later observation periods. (2) Almost 16% of marked females switched search modes across recapture events. Unmarked females sometimes switched search modes within an observation period; switching occurred only after the discovery of the host species with a leaf shape differing from that originally preferred. Switching by individual butterflies was generally more frequent at the time an adult brood shifted from one dominant search mode to another. Individual switching within an adult brood was more common in those years in which the population's shift in predominant search mode occurred during that brood. The evolution of rapid learning by naive females and conservative switching by experienced females is discussed in relation to a quantitative model of switching dynamics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)31-39
Number of pages9
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 1986

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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