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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Mar 4;105(9):3404-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0709811105. Epub 2008 Feb 27.

Behavioral consequences of innate preferences and olfactory learning in hawkmoth-flower interactions.

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  • 1Division of Neurobiology and Center for Insect Science, Arizona Research Laboratories, and Departments of Chemistry and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA.


Spatiotemporal variability in floral resources can have ecological and evolutionary consequences for both plants and the pollinators on which they depend. Seldom, however, can patterns of flower abundance and visitation in the field be linked with the behavioral mechanisms that allow floral visitors to persist when a preferred resource is scarce. To explore these mechanisms better, we examined factors controlling floral preference in the hawkmoth Manduca sexta in the semiarid grassland of Arizona. Here, hawkmoths forage primarily on flowers of the bat-adapted agave, Agave palmeri, but shift to the moth-adapted flowers of their larval host plant, Datura wrightii, when these become abundant. Both plants emit similar concentrations of floral odor, but scent composition, nectar, and flower reflectance are distinct between the two species, and A. palmeri flowers provide six times as much chemical energy as flowers of D. wrightii. Behavioral experiments with both naïve and experienced moths revealed that hawkmoths learn to feed from agave flowers through olfactory conditioning but readily switch to D. wrightii flowers, for which they are the primary pollinator, based on an innate odor preference. Behavioral flexibility and the olfactory contrast between flowers permit the hawkmoths to persist within a dynamic environment, while at the same time to function as the major pollinator of one plant species.

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