Moths wired two ways to find food

Prof. Jeff Riffell and collaborators are the first to determine how moths learn. The research team has shown that when Manduca sexta, the palm-sized hawk moth, is not able to find its favorite sources of nectar, it uses a specifc neural pathway to locate alternates. The ability to find and remember substitute food sources helps the moths survive in unfavorable conditions. Riffell also found that the moths have innate preferences that guide them to the flowers exuding a chemical profile that the creatures love. 

The insect has long-served as a model organism in neurobiology because of its easily accessible nervous system, and a clearer understanding of the neural basis underlying moths’ olfactory preferences might lead to insights into how humans process scent. The findings were published today in Science Express, the early online edition of the journal Science.

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A moth can take advantage of a buffet of blossoms because of two olfactory "channels" for processing smells, one attuned to instinctive favorites and the other able to remember alternate sources of nectar. Photo credit: Charles Hedgcock, RBP/ U of Arizona

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