Drosophila rely on learning while foraging under semi-natural conditions



Learning is predicted to affect manifold ecological and evolutionary processes, but the extent to which animals rely on learning in nature remains poorly known, especially for short-lived non-social invertebrates. This is in particular the case for Drosophila, a favourite laboratory system to study molecular mechanisms of learning. Here we tested whether Drosophila melanogaster use learned information to choose food while free-flying in a large greenhouse emulating the natural environment. In a series of experiments flies were first given an opportunity to learn which of two food odours was associated with good versus unpalatable taste; subsequently, their preference for the two odours was assessed with olfactory traps set up in the greenhouse. Flies that had experienced palatable apple-flavoured food and unpalatable orange-flavoured food were more likely to be attracted to the odour of apple than flies with the opposite experience. This was true both when the flies first learned in the laboratory and were then released and recaptured in the greenhouse, and when the learning occurred under free-flying conditions in the greenhouse. Furthermore, flies retained the memory of their experience while exploring the greenhouse overnight in the absence of focal odours, pointing to the involvement of consolidated memory. These results support the notion that even small, short lived insects which are not central-place foragers make use of learned cues in their natural environments.