Nav: Home

Butterflies can acquire new scent preferences and pass these on to their offspring

February 03, 2020

It was long believed that physical characteristics acquired by organisms during their lifetime could not be passed on to their offspring. However, in recent years, the theory of inheritance of acquired traits has gained support, with studies showing how offspring of rats and tiny worms inherit behaviours that were acquired by their parents in response to particular environmental stimuli, even when the stimulus is no longer present in the offspring's generation.

This theory is further supported by recent studies conducted by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS), in which they found that the inheritance of acquired traits also happens in butterflies, especially in the bush brown butterfly Bicyclus anynana.

Two research teams supervised by Associate Professor Antónia Monteiro, who is from the Department of Biological Sciences at the NUS Faculty of Science, as well as from Yale-NUS College, showed that both Bicyclus anynana caterpillars and adult butterflies can learn to prefer new odours if they are exposed to them during their development or early in life. The researchers also found that the offspring of the exposed caterpillars and butterflies show the same new preferences as their parents, even though they were not exposed themselves, indicating that their parents have passed their new acquired preferences to their children.

The findings of the two studies were published online in the scientific journals Evolution in October 2019 and Nature Communications in January 2020.

Learning to like new odours for feeding and mating

In the study that was published in Evolution, NUS doctoral student Ms V. Gowri, research fellow Dr Emilie Dion, and their collaborators exposed caterpillars and butterflies to new odours they typically do not experience in their natural environment. In the experiments, caterpillars were fed with corn leaves - their usual food - coated with banana or with mango essence throughout their development. Most of these caterpillars preferred to eat leaves with the fruit essence after only a few days of exposure.

In the second study, which was published in Nature Communications, Dr Dion and her collaborators exposed young female butterflies to new sex pheromone blends, a perfume produced by males to entice females to mate with them. The results showed that the exposed females later preferred to mate with males having the new pheromone blend.

"These results are significant because they show that insects are not only driven by their instincts, but can also learn from their previous experience and adjust their future behaviour accordingly. The consequences of their learning abilities on their survival and reproduction can be very important," shared Dr Dion.

Offspring acquired the learned preferences of their parents

Both studies examined the behaviour of the offspring of the exposed Bicyclus anynana caterpillars and butterflies. The results revealed that the new generation also exhibited the same preference for the new food odours, or the new sex pheromone blends, although they were never exposed to these odours themselves. The teams concluded that the offspring inherited the preferences acquired by their parents.

While these learning and inheritance processes are hypothesised to facilitate the evolution of diet diversity across insects, and mate selection over the course of insect diversification, the impact of this inheritance mechanism on evolution is still unknown.

"We are now investigating whether this behavioural transmission is maintained for more than one generation, and also probing the underlying molecular mechanisms in our model species, as these remain some of the most exciting unanswered questions in the field of evolutionary biology," said Assoc Prof Monteiro.
-end-
Dion, E., Pui, L.X., Weber, K. et al. Early-exposure to new sex pheromone blends alters mate preference in female butterflies and in their offspring. Nat Commun 11, 53 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-13801-2

Gowri V., E Dion, Athamaja, FM Piel, and Monteiro A (2019) Transgenerational inheritance of learned preferences for novel host plant odors in Bicyclus anynana butterflies. Evolution doi:10.1111/evo.13861

National University of Singapore

Related Evolution Articles:

Artificial evolution of an industry
A research team has taken a deep dive into the newly emerging domain of 'forward-looking' business strategies that show firms have far more ability to actively influence the future of their markets than once thought.
Paleontology: Experiments in evolution
A new find from Patagonia sheds light on the evolution of large predatory dinosaurs.
A window into evolution
The C4 cycle supercharges photosynthesis and evolved independently more than 62 times.
Is evolution predictable?
An international team of scientists working with Heliconius butterflies at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama was faced with a mystery: how do pairs of unrelated butterflies from Peru to Costa Rica evolve nearly the same wing-color patterns over and over again?
Predicting evolution
A new method of 're-barcoding' DNA allows scientists to track rapid evolution in yeast.
Insect evolution: Insect evolution
Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have shown that the incidence of midge and fly larvae in amber is far higher than previously thought.
Evolution of aesthetic dentistry
One of the main goals of dental treatment is to mimic teeth and design smiles in the most natural and aesthetic manner, based on the individual and specific needs of the patient.
An evolution in the understanding of evolution
In an open-source research paper, a UVA Engineering professor and her former Ph.D. student share a new, more accurate method for modeling evolutionary change.
Chemical evolution -- One-pot wonder
Before life, there was RNA: Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich show how the four different letters of this genetic alphabet could be created from simple precursor molecules on early Earth -- under the same environmental conditions.
Catching evolution in the act
Researchers have produced some of the first evidence that shows that artificial selection and natural selection act on the same genes, a hypothesis predicted by Charles Darwin in 1859.
More Evolution News and Evolution Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.