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PLoS One. 2008 Mar 5;3(3):e1736. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001736.

Retention of memory through metamorphosis: can a moth remember what it learned as a caterpillar?

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Department of Biology, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA.


Insects that undergo complete metamorphosis experience enormous changes in both morphology and lifestyle. The current study examines whether larval experience can persist through pupation into adulthood in Lepidoptera, and assesses two possible mechanisms that could underlie such behavior: exposure of emerging adults to chemicals from the larval environment, or associative learning transferred to adulthood via maintenance of intact synaptic connections. Fifth instar Manduca sexta caterpillars received an electrical shock associatively paired with a specific odor in order to create a conditioned odor aversion, and were assayed for learning in a Y choice apparatus as larvae and again as adult moths. We show that larvae learned to avoid the training odor, and that this aversion was still present in the adults. The adult aversion did not result from carryover of chemicals from the larval environment, as neither applying odorants to naïve pupae nor washing the pupae of trained caterpillars resulted in a change in behavior. In addition, we report that larvae trained at third instar still showed odor aversion after two molts, as fifth instars, but did not avoid the odor as adults, consistent with the idea that post-metamorphic recall involves regions of the brain that are not produced until later in larval development. The present study, the first to demonstrate conclusively that associative memory survives metamorphosis in Lepidoptera, provokes intriguing new questions about the organization and persistence of the central nervous system during metamorphosis. Our results have both ecological and evolutionary implications, as retention of memory through metamorphosis could influence host choice by polyphagous insects, shape habitat selection, and lead to eventual sympatric speciation.

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