Butterflies remember caterpillar experiences

Wildlife NewsNewScientist.com news service
Phil McKenna
05 March 2008

 

Once a Brain, Always a brain?

Don't be cruel to caterpillars they won't forget it. Moths and butterflies can remember what they learned as caterpillars, a study reveals.

The findings challenge the accepted wisdom that the insects brains and all are completely rewired during metamorphosis, and may provide clues about neural development. "Practically everything about the two phases of the organism are so different morphology, diet, how they move, and what they sense," says Martha Weiss of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, in the US. "We were curious to see if we could train a caterpillar to do something it could remember as an adult," she says Weiss and colleagues exposed tobacco hornworm caterpillars, Manduca sexta, to ethyl acetate a chemical often used in nail polish remover and a series of mild electric shocks.

Caterpillar soup
Seventy-eight percent of the caterpillars that were shocked directly after exposure avoided the compound in subsequent tests while still in the larval stage. The tests were conducted inside a Y-shaped pipe that allowed the animals to choose an area smelling of ethyl acetate or of unadulterated air.
About a month later, after the caterpillars had metamorphosed, the adult moths were given the same choice test. Seventy-seven percent of them avoided the ethyl acetate pipe, suggesting that the lesson learned as a caterpillar is remembered as an adult. "People always thought that during metamorphosis the caterpillar turns to 'soup' and all the ingredients are rearranged into the butterfly or moth," says Weiss. "That clearly isn't what happens. Parts of the brain are retained that allow memories to persist through this very dramatic transition."

What does happen? Find out by reading the complete article at:

NewScientist Online

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